About a century ago, Carrboro’s commercial center shifted from Weaver Street to East Main Street, according to an architectural inventory the town published in 1983. By the 1920s, the booming district had all kinds of stores, including a pool parlor, a candy kitchen, and J. C. Merritt’s first hot dog stand. Some of the buildings were new and others had been moved. Almost all were made of wood.

In 1924, a fire sparked in a boarding house at 102 East Main, where the shell of Tyler’s Taproom is now, and burned down most of the block—except for R. H. Marks’s dry goods store, which still stands as Bank of America. Marks had built in brick, and after the fire, the other store owners followed his lead, mortaring up the durable, weathering street we stroll today.

Merritt did business in an annex on Marks’s store for a time, which was then rented by the druggist P. L. Senter. Circa 1950, he moved into a larger building next door, hanging a Rexall sign above the inviting metal canopy at 108 East Main, where Senter Drug, alongside the immortal Friendly Barber Shop, would anchor the block for decades. It had a sandwich counter and great orangeade, according to Richard Ellington, the Carrboro historian who helped me clear up a tricky point in this account.nea

The Rexall sign finally came down in the mid-1980s, and the left side of 108 East Main harbored a series of relatively fleeting concerns (a telemarketing office, a screen printer, a web hosting company) until the day in 2001 when the Orange County Social Club, a local landmark for a new century, opened for the first time.

It was September 26, barely two weeks after 9/11. That weekend, the mayor would come to cut a ribbon, but this was a quiet Wednesday.

Matt Neal, a founding employee, who cofounded Neal’s Deli around the corner, was sweeping up the last drywall dust. The purple paint was fresh on the wavy cubbyholes above the bar. The same music scenesters who had hammered the dimples into its copper top were now the first customers, and many of those scenesters are still installed at what they call “the deep end” of the bar (nearest the back patio, where you can smoke), growing mossier and more iconic by the year.

The first bartender was Tricia Mesigian. She was 29 years old and, in the past year, had quit her job at Merge Records, toured Europe with David Byrne, and then hauled him back to play at Cat’s Cradle—the music-scene nucleus whose crowd, she was certain, would swarm to the bar she was about to open, strategically located two blocks away.

From the rhythm of her own nightlife, she’d identified a need for a “middle-night” place that welcomed younger patrons but catered to slightly older ones. No shows, no food, no frills—just cheap beer, stiff highballs, and a clean, cozy place to meet and talk; to celebrate or grieve; to waste a few hours or unwind a few years. She thought the motley mansion of the indie scene needed a living room, and it didn’t take long for time to prove her right.

“People would be like, ‘Oh my god, opening a business, you’re rolling the dice, what a gamble!’” Mesigian said one recent morning at OCSC. “I just didn’t feel that way. I’m not really a risk-taker.”

At 50, she is tall and impervious, with a mass of dark, steely curls and the calm, steady demeanor it takes to tend the wildlife of a bar. She gave up her last shifts in 2016 when she had a child with her husband, the musician and artist Charles Chace, whose abstract paintings shine like flaking yellow mirrors in the morning light. She just subs, now, but also runs every aspect of the business, and she’s always around.

Mesigian had envisioned a big party for OCSC’s 20th anniversary last year, but the pandemic held things up—and anyway, what better birthday for a bar to celebrate than 21? October 7 and 8 will find music-scene friends and deep-end vets deejaying and performing from four p.m. until last call.

Friday features DJ No. 6 and DJ Bugspray, aka Mac McCaughan, Mesigian’s former employer when she worked at Merge. Saturday brings live music by local stalwarts Pipe and Lud, followed by DJ sets from some visiting royals, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, in a quiet flaunting of the bar’s cred far beyond North Carolina.

“One of my harebrained ideas was for the performers to all be in bands that were older than the bar,” Mesigian says. “I also wanted people my age to look at it and say, ‘I could do that!’ We’re gonna have dinner breaks, get some soup in between.”

Beyond being a haven for local and touring musicians, OCSC has thrived by providing constancy to its regulars, exceptional care to its staff, and an affordable, welcoming bar to the neighborhood—especially since a law change eliminated the need for $5 memberships this year, though seasoned townies still cherish their faded orange cards.

Mine (number 1,432) is stamped June 21, 2002, nine months after OCSC opened, though I remember being there earlier. I think I was just too lazy to join at first, too 22, with friends to sign me in. But I know it became the default place to go before and after a Cradle show, where you might lure the band and the scene back to your North Greensboro Street rental for an impromptu after-party—a role that had previously been shared by Hell, that vanished basement legend of Rosemary Street, and Henry’s Bistro, which is more or less intact as Northside District.

As you got older, perhaps OCSC became the place you went for a drink after work or to meet a visiting friend. And if you drifted away—after all, people get married, have kids, move to Durham—it became the place where you could return and find things basically as you left them, so rare in our chaotic urban environment. The faces lining the bar, floating in the shadows of the parlors, and flapping at the forum-like tables outside are always changing, but Mesigian, her staff, and their extended family of lifers always make these aging bricks feel like home.

Mesigian comes from a suburb of Philadelphia called Media, “Everybody’s Hometown.” In the early nineties, she studied business and got into indie rock at Virginia Tech.

“What I really thank Virginia Tech for is that it got me here,” she says. One of her college roommates moved to Durham, and Mesigian liked Archers of Loaf and Small 23, so she and the other roommate moved to Chapel Hill.

Her first job here was at Skylight Exchange, the sandwich shop and bookstore that evolved into Nightlight, where she first met some of OCSC’s long-term bartenders, including Jamie McPhail and Jenny Waters. In 1995, she had a brief internship at Mammoth Records before she met the Merge folks and hopped over there. Superchunk was touring Here’s Where the Strings Come In, which almost halved the label’s staff, so Mesigian soon became a full-time employee.

“Mac and Laura [Ballance] were great bosses, great mentors,” she says. “They were inspiring, and I was getting older and realizing I wanted to have my own thing. At Merge, what I liked doing best was hospitality when bands came to town. Showing them around, everybody staying at my house, making them breakfast—socializing.”

“We didn’t hire very many people, so when we did, it had to be someone that really cared about what we were doing and could kind of create their own position,” McCaughan says. “We were still learning to have a record label as we went.” He remembers thinking that Mesigian was the most motivated, energetic person he had ever met.

“She still has that energy,” he says. “College towns are full of bars, but it’s rare to find a place that has so much character and care put into it. I remember thinking, ‘If we found this place on tour, it would be one of our fondest destinations.’ Luckily, we didn’t have to go on tour to find it.”

The idea of a bar took hold in 1997 when Pipe singer and visual artist Ron Liberti started hosting a Friday happy hour at the Cradle.

“Pipe went on tour, and Ron was like, ‘Trish, you do it,’” Mesigian says in the goofy voice she uses to quote herself and her friends. “Then he came back and started a happy hour at the [Local] 506. I was like, ‘Um, you’re competing with the happy hour you made me do while you were out of town?’”

Except for those Fridays, after the workday at Merge and dinner at Carrburritos, she would find herself marooned until late night. “I wanted a place where, say, you wanted to have one drink after dinner but not stay out,” she says. “There was Hell and Henry’s. I guess Dead Mule opened around then, and Sticks & Stones was where Tyler’s is. But it was all 11 o’clock–y.”

As she worked on her business plan, she called Mark Dorosin, a civil rights lawyer who was the owner of Hell and a Carrboro alderman. He helped her enroll in a small-business training class and Carrboro’s revolving loan fund, which matched business owners’ investments.

“Mark was a tremendous mentor of mine,” Mesigian says. “He, as a Carrboro citizen, understood what I was going for, even though it was going to carve into his clientele. That’s why I went to him first. But we both knew that Carrboro could use places.”

“To be honest, I was humbled that she asked me for guidance,” Dorosin says. “I don’t believe in the scarcity model of anything, and OCSC was more intimate than Hell, which was loud and sprawling. It was a complementary vision, and I wanted to do anything I could to help.”

Dorosin also became a devoted customer, and “many years of High Life and Jameson later,” he’s impressed by how much the bar resembles Mesigian’s original vision.

“She really has built a community place,” he says. “She’s done fundraisers, been involved in local politics.”

Mesigian was also working at the Cradle in those days. She remembers calling up its owner, Frank Heath, as she pored over cash-flow analyses—but not so much to ask for advice as to share her brainstorms, she says.

“Now I look back and think if someone was calling me with the comments I was giving Frank,” she says, laughing. “‘Frank, I’m just here, and, like, I’m thinking keg beer is not the profit margin people say it is,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh my god, shut up!’”

When looking for locations, she prioritized proximity to the Cradle and a Carrboro zip code.

“If you went to the Cradle, you didn’t want to go backward,” she says. “You wanted to start going home. So the flow was a part of it, being this way, in Carrboro.”

Mesigian makes opening a bar sound easy. She staked just $1,000 of her own money and a ton of time and labor and says she was able to repay loans from the town and her deeply encouraging parents within a year.

But then, this wasn’t a lavish endeavor from the very beginning. No architects or designers were hired. A friend named Andy McMillan did the plumbing; two others, Bart Moyers and Rob Young, built the bar. Most of the decor was purely sourced from the nearby PTA Thrift Shop. “That was in style,” Mesigian says. “Think about Friends. Coffee shops were new, mix-match furniture, different color paint on the walls.”

The name Orange County Social Club was fated to be shortened, and it’s just as common to hear the bar called OCSC. Those two hissing trochees are fun to pronounce, like you’re about to start reciting “The Raven,” and they add a secret personal flourish to a sturdy, functional name.

“It had this beautiful graphic ring to me because I grew up going to Ocean City, New Jersey, and the lifeguards would wear OCBP for Ocean City Beach Patrol,” Mesigian says. “I was like, ‘I see it in lights!’”

Generally, the Ron Liberti painting of Dean Smith that covers the TV at OCSC comes off only when UNC basketball comes on. The picture has the word “consistency” written on it, a quiet motto.

“Dean Smith is known as one of the greatest all-time college basketball coaches, and his percentage was like 77 percent,” Mesigian says. “That’s a C. So that’s been our focus: do your thing, keep your head down, and not be flashy. We’ve got great rock clubs. We’ve got great restaurants. My niche is not being either but sitting in the cut and being a part of it.”

As the years roll by with lulling consistency, changes pass like wrinkles on a deep, heavy sea. Raising Pabst Blue Ribbon to $2, ten years ago, tormented Mesigian, though anything less, in the days of paper money, would have hurt tips. It remains $2 today. As the seasons turned, seasonal cocktails inevitably came to a place that once ran on bourbon and Coke, vodka and tonic. And the world briefly rocked on its axis when OCSC went nonsmoking in 2009, almost six months before the state smoking ban came down. Mesigian closed the bar, cleaned out the tar, and reopened just in time for Merge’s 20th-anniversary festival. The shock passed and the world went on, the smoke thickening on the patio.

A subtler change occurred about ten years ago, when the Cradle opened a second bar and stage in the back, where the main entrance had been moved. It became less of a straight shot to OCSC, and people often congregated in the back, after a show. There were also more options by that point, from Bowbarr to Belltree.   

“Maybe it’s not the automatic place anymore,” Mesigian says. “People who weren’t in Carrboro then can’t picture what it was like. If you lived in Chapel Hill, it was Nowheresville. I’m also older, so I’m not at every Cradle show like, ‘Come down to my bar!’”

Jamie McPhail noticed the shift—and she would know, as she’s been tending bar at OCSC from the start. A former Hardback Cafe manager and Henry’s bartender, she was just back from maternity leave when Mesigian hired her 21 years ago.

To McPhail, the change that seemed most momentous was the elimination of the $5 memberships, last summer, with the passage of House Bill 768, which eliminated the membership fee requirement for bars making less than 30 percent of revenue from food and nonalcoholic beverages. So far, though, that hasn’t changed too much.

“There was accountability in being a member,” she said in a phone interview. “But it has been no problem. We’ve had lots of new people come in, and all of them have been awesome.”

Sure, there have been a few high jinks over the years. There was the morning Mesigian found a customer sleeping on the couch after passing out undetected in the bathroom the night before. There was the Halloween party where someone “put the poo in spooky” in the middle of the dance floor, as bartender Mac Welliver once quipped. But no one can remember there ever being a fight, and very few people have ever been ejected or banned.

The bar’s culture is like a self-cleaning fish tank. OCSC is not a secret, as Mesigian says, but it’s a secret until you know it.

“We have a lot of regulars, and they have our backs,” McPhail says. “I always feel safe and that somebody would alert me if anything bad was happening. But we really, really, really do not have problems, because we have customers here who wouldn’t let it happen.”

For the party, Mesigian is making T-shirts with the names of every staff member since the beginning listed on the back in a festival font that descends by length of tenure. There are only 33 names on the shirt, and the three names at the top of the shirt still work there.

“Everybody that has worked here would joke that I want, in the legend of their brain, to be the best boss they’ve ever had. I always want to win that award,” Mesigian says. She laughs, then grows frank. “Having this space is super important and something I’m so proud of, but being a good boss brings me so much more pride. For real. I’m not bullshitting.”

A dozen OCSC workers and patrons—the line blurs—recently met at the bar on a Sunday afternoon to reminisce and sing Mesigian’s praises. One of them, Tracy Swain, has a tattoo based on the coral honeysuckle vines that form part of the graceful canopy over the patio. Swain worked Saturday nights with Rebecca Mormino and Matt Neal in the bar’s first decade.

“When I think of that era, the difference between Friday and Saturday night makes me laugh,” Mormino says. “Friday was Lee [Waters], Jenny, and Jeff Clarke, and they were tight and on their shit, slinging drinks and doing crazy numbers. We were like the Bad News Bears. It took us three hours to close, with Matt counting the money 30 times.”

“Before we opened, I was convinced Trish was going to open an adult-themed place, like a topless bar,” Neal adds to general laughter, turning to Mesigian, who rolls her eyes. “I know you were joking, but you had me convinced.”

Bartenders Laura King and Mallory Carl are here, as is Kirk Ross, a longtime local newshound who plays in Lud. He was one of the first people Mesigian told about her vision, at one of those Liberti happy hours, where he told her he wanted membership number three.

“Asking for number one or two felt a little greedy,” he says, deadpan as always. “I figured three was as far up as I could go.” Years later, without further mention, Mesigian handed him the card. He assembled his own barstool the first time he came, and he never really left after that.

Membership number one went to Sherwood Ward, Mesigian’s first landlord, whose wife, Jean Ward, fills the role now. Number two was Colin Dodd, who also worked here in the early years.

“I loved helping bands,” Dodd says to Mesigian, “and you opening this bar, hammering the copper and all that, it felt like going on a band tour—a creative act we were all involved in.”

They all recall the relief of the smoking ban, even though most of them smoked.

“I was jealous because I had just quit,” Neal says. “‘Wait a minute, they’re all going to work in clean air?’”

“Glorious,” McPhail says.

“We did a big clean after, and it was, like, smoke running down the walls,” Swain adds.

“I replaced the light fixtures—oh god,” says George Nicholas, who never even worked there. “It’s hard for me to imagine this town without the bar. I don’t know if I would still be here without it.”

The only person who doesn’t remember this is Dylan Traister, who has spent six of their 27 years of life at the bar and one behind it.

“I really recognize the significance of this bar, and all these people are special to me because I was a regular before,” Traister says. “My dad frequented it when I was a kid, so I was really excited when I turned 21 and could become a part of it.”

Richard Stilwell and Billy Buckley—numbers two and three on the T-shirt—wanted to underscore that the pandemic had amplified exactly why people work here for so long.

“Trish, as a person and boss, really stepped up and took care of all the employees,” Buckley says. “She figured out all the unemployment stuff and put her time and energy into helping us navigate through that weirdness.”

“Most decisions are a forum,” McPhail says. “It’s not like Trish at the top telling us what to do. With the pandemic, we decided as a group when and how we wanted to reopen. We’re all very aware of working here and living in the community we live in. We know it’s not like this everywhere.”

And should this bar ever leave these old bricks, it won’t ever be like this again, so we take time to appreciate what we have and drink while we can. Cheers, OCSC.

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