The final night of Southern Rail, Carrboro's reliquary of food, music, booze and history | Music
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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The final night of Southern Rail, Carrboro's reliquary of food, music, booze and history

Posted by on Wed, Dec 23, 2015 at 3:26 PM

click to enlarge Mike Benson, on the deserted stage of The Station at Southern Rail - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Mike Benson, on the deserted stage of The Station at Southern Rail

Chris Young walks into the room, glances at the bar and the bartender, tosses three creased dollar bills onto the counter and lets out a sigh so heavy the whole crowd can hear it.

"Hey, Chris," Mike Benson exclaims, momentarily lifting his hands from the bar's smooth surface. Undeterred by Young's frown, Benson's face lights up beneath an olive green stocking cap. "What can I get you? Want a beer?"

Young declines. He's only come to The Tiger Room—the antique-laden coffee shop and lounge that Benson owns as part of his massive Carrboro food-music-and-booze operation, Southern Rail—to use the bathroom. He's just arrived from Asheville to participate in the open mic night next door in The Station, Southern Rail's small music venue. It's the club's final show and the last hurrah ever for the entire complex, which will serve its final beer after nine years with the night's last call.

Next door, an eager crowd congregates early around sign-up sheets, vying for a chance to play The Station one last time before, presumably, the real estate is sold to the highest bidder. One participant says he's visiting on a short tour from Philadelphia; everyone cheers, and he nabs the night's first slot.

"I hate to see this place go. I have a lot of mixed feelings that I don't know how to talk about, so I just threw a few dollars on the counter," Young tells Benson and his wife, Christy, next door. "I drove all the way here for this when I heard. It was like a family emergency. I owe a lot of stuff to this place."

Benson laughs, throws the money into a tip jar and slips from behind the bar. He puts his arms around Young and slaps his back three times. During the next hour, both Bensons do a lot of this—greeting old friends, offering hellos and hugs, saying "thanks for being here." As the room fills with Carrboro characters, bar and club owners and folks just looking for a beer, the night starts to feel like a wake for an old friend.

"This is bittersweet," admits Benson. "I feel like we accomplished something here, but I wish we were finishing it with money. That way, we could start on another project."

Late last year, Mike announced he was selling the entire enterprise for $650,000. But two possible buyers fell through just days before the deals were done. In recent months, a delinquent tax bill of more than $150,000 and a series of outstanding construction debts put the squeeze on the Bensons.

Rather than whittle the debts down, Mike—a former rock 'n' roll photographer and art gallery operator who now might be looking to return to those fields—decided to let the banks decide for him. Though the restaurant closed in December, the Bensons had hoped to keep the bars open until January. But the creditors came calling, and tonight is it.

"You have to make a strategic decision to either kick the can down the road or just say, 'OK, let me retire as gracefully as I can, and move onto the next phase of my life,'" says Christy, a business law professor at Elon University. "If the debts were the only issue, we would come up with a way to negotiate a settlement and keep operating. But making something creative like this actually work requires a lot of finesse and energy."

Both Christy and Mike grew up in Chapel Hill and attended Chapel Hill High School before shipping off to college, bouncing around the globe and running a series of successful spots in Washington, D.C. They returned to Orange County in 2006 after winning Southern Rail's landmark train cars at auction and immediately started construction.

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