Despite its reputation as a bohemian haven, Chapel Hill isn’t always an easy place to live outside the mainstream. Merchants, landlords, coffee shops and restaurants have shifted their focus away from the fringes and toward the wealthy (and wealthy students). You can buy $150 sunglasses on Franklin Street, but not groceries. Faced with these 21st century realities, a person in a faded Superchunk T-shirt could be excused for feeling a little unloved.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, the Hardback Cafe and Bookstore was ground zero for Chapel Hill’s slacker-indie rock scene. When it closed, the Hardback Diaspora found comfort in places like The Cave, Henry’s, and Local 506, but never really found a place to settle. In April 1997, a bar called Hell opened and captured some of the Hardback’s clientele–and some of its attitude, as anyone who has ever waited thirstily for the bartenders to finish a conversation and serve them can tell you.
Superficial similarities aside, Hell is no Hardback. You can’t go there to nurse a daylong cup of coffee, and no microphone has ever been opened for nascent Nick Caves or budding Bob Dylans. Hell has none of the Hardback’s literary aspirations, nor any other delusions about itself, as a poster for a party celebrating the bar’s birthday in April demonstrated.
“Four years ago, a short Jewish man had a vision of a dark basement filled with cheap drinks, stale smoke, salted snacks, loud music and a stainless steel urinal,” the poster read. “They said he was crazy. But he and a cadre of misanthropes and high-functioning sociopaths refused to compromise.”
Sometimes I hate the place: On summer Saturdays when it’s hot and crowded, or worse, raining, and the water on the floor loosens the tar from a million cigarettes and glues it to your shoes. On game days when out-of-place, out-of-towners spill down the stairs and turn it into a sea of backwards ball caps. When a beautiful 23-year-old scenester with tattoos on her arms and glitter on her face looks right through my 35-year-old corpulent corpse, scanning the room for the next dissolute guitarist who sleeps in his clothes, I hate it especially.
But then there are the many times I love it: When the jukebox plays Coltrane followed by Cheater Slicks, or Captain Beefheart followed by Mos Def. When basketball season reveals that many of those tattooed scenesters are also vocal Tar Heel fans. When the bartender hands you a drink he’s just invented called the Bay of Pigs–half vodka, half rum. When the obstreperous stool jockey next to you turns out to be not only the bar’s owner, but also a Carrboro alderman.
In Hell, you can spin around 360 degrees and wonder how many other places there are in North Carolina, America, the world, where you can see people of almost every racial, sexual and socioeconomic description: grad students, musicians, artists; old punks, young gays and lesbians, skinheads, a cross dresser or two, people who work with their hands, people who work in cubicles, people who don’t work.
In a town that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness, it can still be hard to find places where those values come to life. When you find one that also has cold Schlitz for a buck, you know you’re onto something.