Books, countless Johnny Cash CDs, PTA Thrift Shop jewelry, harmonicas, gently used guitars, bicycles, unpackaged single lightbulbs.

Robert Harman, the King of Carrboro, was a West Virginian loner who became a local icon and staple. He was a regular at the Open Eye Cafe where patrons and staff cherished his friendship, his unique look and penchant for giving gifts and sharing stories.
  • Photo courtesy of Don Henze
  • Robert Harman, the King of Carrboro, was a West Virginian loner who became a local icon and staple. He was a regular at the Open Eye Cafe where patrons and staff cherished his friendship, his unique look and penchant for giving gifts and sharing stories.

The overwhelming majority of the room, packed with folks sitting atop the counter and on the floor where they couldn’t find seats, recalled the gifts that Robert Harman, the King of Carrboro, gave them over the years.

“His pockets were full of the strangest oddities, and they would come out at any moment,” said Scott Conary, who owns Open Eye, the coffee shop where Harman was a staple.

“He gave me earrings with an ‘L’ on it,” said Sara Gebhart, a former barista . “I said, ‘You know my name doesn’t start with an ‘L.” He said, ‘That’s for ‘Love’ God damn it.’”

The real gift, Snooky Sroczynski said fittingly, was the King himself.

Those who knew Robert Harman best came together at the cafe Wednesday night to honor him with shared memories, a video tribute and performances of his favorite tunes. He died earlier this month at 73 after a bicycle accident.

Harman’s is a true Carrboro story. He became part of the everyday life of the town with his distinct look, his idiosyncracies and his humble, loving touch.

“He kind of defined outside of the box,” Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said. “He probably met a lot of cold shoulders in his life, people who might have thought there was something wrong with Robert. I like to think that Carrboro is a community where we are willing to accept a person like Robert on his own terms.”

Harman found the Paris of the Piedmont in 2000. He left home at 14 when with a scar his father put on his face and worked 25 years as a coal miner before assuming his Carrboro throne. He left West Virginia when his wife died.

He was always looking for a community, a family. He moved here, alone at first.

He rode his bicycle past Cliff’s Meat Market on Main Street looking for work and yelled his distinctive, “Hey, Bo,” owner Cliff Collins remembers fondly.

Unafraid of heights having washed windows on Charlotte skyscrapers, Harman fixed Cliff’s roof and helped renovate the building. In exchange, Cliff offered him a place to stay for three months, which soon became eight years.

He spoke in a garbled, deep voice and Alan Welborn became his translator, of sorts.

“He was a really good storyteller,” Welborn recalled.

Sometimes the stories were true, others were fabricated but fantastic.

Harman explained to Welborn his love of dogs by saying that when he served in Vietnam a German shepherd was roaming through the jungle. He offered the dog some meat on a bone and it took a liking to him. Several days later, the enemy threw a grenade nearby the troops, and the dog put it in it’s mouth, ran away and blew up. That’s why dogs are a man’s best friend, Harman explained.

He would tell friends to take a look at a picture of his niece and hand over a photo of Britney Spears.

As the years passed, he opened to others. He would share his headphones, seemingly soaked in cologne with those who approached him. Country was always playing, usually his favorite Cash or his love interest Loretta Lynn, who looked like his former wife.

He would pretend to talk to her on the phone.

Fittingly, Gebhart and barista Daryl Anne sang “Stand By Your Man,” in his honor. It was the advice he would give to women in the cafe often.

Friends brindled with smiles and laughter when a song Harman wrote was offered. It contained only a few chords (he used to say you could play 100 songs with only three of them) a few knocks on the guitar, and the lyrics, “You’re going to be my little old lady, and I’ll be your big old baby. Baby, it’s true. I want to go home with you.”

Friends and family shared stories for two hours, and they could have gone on many times over.

“Your mamas raised rabbits,” Collins recalled him telling the men who would run away from him.

“He kept his loner status, he had his own way of reaching out,” Conary said.

Many said they still expect to see Harman walking into the coffee shop or crossing Main Street.

He was precious.

Harman’s favorite chair, marked with brown stains from the chewing tobacco that would ooze from his pocket, was adorned with flowers.

Henze offered a video of Harman strumming his guitar, pointing to a metal plate in his head and telling a story about his heart stopping for four hours. He was with his friends then, now and always.

They spread his ashes in Cliff’s parking lot.

Pansy Hanchock, Harman’s sister who came from Lexington for the tribute, and the rest of his family was humbled, overjoyed by the outpour.

“We were so overwhelmed when we got to got to Carrboro to see how he was loved,” she said. “We came here sad, and we returned so jubilant.”

His brother, Walt Harman, said he’s never felt like this before.

“Thank you to everyone,” he said. “He told me this was a special community, and I believe him.”

The story is just beginning, Henze said. He hopes to hold a similar event next year.