After almost four years of serving the Charlottesville community, Random Row Books will close its doors at the end of the June. The building that houses the store—a former auto repair shop near the corner of West Main Street and Ridge/McIntire Road—will eventually be demolished, along with other buildings on the property to make room for a hotel. The closure comes as no great surprise. The store’s owner, Ryan Deramus, has leased it on a month-to-month basis since opening in the fall of 2009. Deramus says that he has known since the beginning that he may have to move out, and that time has come.
The bookstore’s selection is modest-sized, but of high quality. Deramus is a discerning buyer, and all the books are interesting, in good condition, and priced reasonably, so the turnover rate on the shelves has been high. He has no plans to relocate, and is in talks to sell the majority of the store’s remaining stock to a locally based independent online bookseller, though nothing has been confirmed. The unsold volumes may still find good homes and eager readers, but the loss of the bookstore itself will have a significant impact on the Charlottesville community, which stands to lose far more than another friendly mom-and-pop operation.
Many chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble are managing to stay afloat in the struggling economy, and online sellers like Amazon are stronger than ever, although physical books make up an increasingly small percentage of their sales. But book shops, including New Dominion, and secondhand sellers like Daedelus, Blue Whale, and Heartwood, have a charm and a character that’s impossible to mail-order or download. And it’s not just books. The one-of-a-kind video store Sneak Reviews is still facing imminent closure, and Charlottesville’s last locally-owned movie theater, Vinegar Hill (where this writer is the manager), is in limbo while the landlord tries to sell the building. As Charlottesville loses business like these to mega-corporations, we also lose the character of our community, the distinct flavor that has made so many want to remain or relocate here in the first place.
Far more than just a bookstore, Random Row is also a space for dozens of other endeavors, many of which are not profit-driven at all. Since 2009, Random Row (named for the former Vinegar Hill neighborhood that was displaced by controversial urban development in the 1960s) has hosted theatrical performances, music concerts, dance parties, film and video screenings, political lectures, literary readings, community meetings, workshops, weekend-long festivals, and free community meals. It’s provided a space for two Anarchist Book Fairs, American Indian Festivals, several satellite exhibitions for the LOOK3 Festival, multiple visits from the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater collective, several open forums for City Council representatives and candidates, and a meeting of the Industrial Hemp Coalition. Its stage has seen performances by metal bands, indie rockers, classical performers, experimental noise artists, a monthly poetry night that eventually morphed into a hip-hop open mic, and a recent visit from punk legend Ian MacKaye.
Adjacent spaces in the building have been occupied by artist studios, a bakery, a textile co-op, and two different bicycle shops. Deramus has further sublet portions of his space, to another bookseller, a small pay-what-you-can thrift store, and still more artists, and collaborators, many of whom have ended up living there for months, often sharing the tasks of minding the store or staffing events. No small number of traveling speakers, performers, or friends-in-need have stayed there for a night or two.
It may sound like an overwhelming list, but the atmosphere at Random Row is exceedingly low-key and casual. Though the space currently contains a small stage, a working printing press, a large piano, and several couches, it has plenty of empty space to spare, and welcomes daily visitors and curious tourists alike. There’s a handful of chessboards and speed-clocks, and it’s not uncommon for various friends and collaborators to stop by for a quick game in the course of an afternoon.
Deramus is a quiet, thoughtful man who has done more for the Charlottesville community in recent years than almost anyone else I know, and prefers to deflect praise to his many guests and collaborators, especially the political organizers he’s worked with: living wage and affordable housing campaigner Brandon Collins, prominent local peace activist David Swanson, Amnesty International and Food Not Bombs organizer Hisham Ashur, and Sue Frankel of the Little Flower Catholic Worker Farm in Louisa County.
Deramus is wary of being profiled or pigeonholed by the press, and though he politely declined a formal interview for this column, our friendly off-the-record chat lasted for over an hour. As we talked, he continued to buy and sell books, negotiated the price of a used bicycle (noting its flaws and advising the buyer where best to get it repaired), and helped to set up for a percussion performance of works by John Cage and Iannis Xenakis that was due to take place that evening. The store isn’t closed yet.
The coming weeks will see a visit from anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, a week-long run of performances of Molière’s Misanthrope, and a closing-night concert organized by local metal bands. But when it does close, all of these projects and performances will be in need of a new home. Some may move elsewhere, but many will simply cease.
There will always be those interested in starting their own project, coloring outside of the lines, working to change the world for the better, or merely providing a service to the community. But not all of them are developers, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, academics, or tech-industry start-up wizards, and if Charlottesville is going to be a place that we all love and embrace, then our community must foster more places like Random Row where many voices can be heard. Random Row Books has played a crucial role in that mission for the past four years, and leaves behind a big pair of shoes for the rest of us to fill.
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