When Ryan DeRamus opened Random Row Books last fall, he didn’t have a clear vision for the space, about half of which is occupied by bookshelves and couches, so he allowed the community to do, more or less, what it wanted. With the then-recent closure of the Outback Lodge, what Charlottesville really needed was a place where local bands could play without fear that nobody would show—a not unreasonable fear. Within a couple of months, people started showing up, and the bookstore began to look curiously like a full-fledged rock venue, complete with stage, P.A. and standing room.
“Give me your jaded, your punks, your studded belt-wearing masses, the wretched refuse of your teeming culture…” So could have read an inscription above the makeshift stage at Random Row Books, which has been home to many local bands since the West Main Street store started hosting events in October. Now run-ins with city officials spell trouble for the space’s future as a venue.
The one thing Random Row didn’t have was permanent permission from the city. Following a few visits from city officials, including the fire marshal, the bookstore’s future as a venue has been called into question. “The building is in really bad shape, and having a lot of people there is asking for trouble,” says Brian Haluska, a neighborhood planner with the city. “The basis of our decision to shut those things down was based on a matter of public safety and building safety.” He cites a request to demolish the building, filed with the Board of Architectural Review several years ago and at that time denied for the century-old building’s historic value.
One of the store’s first events, was the Wordsmith Poetry Jam in October, for which DeRamus secured a temporary high occupancy permit. Since then, he says, “I dragged my feet in pursuing a permanent permit, assuming that if I didn’t have anything over 150 people, that would be cool.” DeRamus says that only one event has come close to that, a concert by the emotional New Jersey band Titus Andronicus. Even minor renovations (which would include widening the doorframes and equipping the space with more fire extinguishers) and permits (the special-use permit, DeRamus says, costs $1,500, whether the request is denied or accepted before the planning commission) are cost prohibitive because the building is leased on a month-to-month basis. “So I’m just going to comply,” he says.
“It’s crazy how this works in this city,” says Jeyon Falsini, who books local concerts. “One venue shuts down, and another one opens up. It just shows you how choppy the waters are for music in this town.” Falsini says that the bookstore was an important home for local bands that otherwise have nowhere to play, particularly punk and metal bands.
One such band is Awaiting Shipwrecks (the band recently changed its name from And She Screams Mercy). “We had a few almost sold-out shows there, and we were having a lot of success,” says the band’s guitarist, Chris Tapscott. “It was starting to get a lot of attention, and I know a lot of kids are upset because with the Outback Lodge gone, and Is venue gone, there aren’t a lot of places to go for rock shows.”
The good news is that Random Row will continue to host Secretly Y’all, readings, screenings, and most nonmusic activities. After all, it is a bookstore.