Random Row Books, Part 1

November 24th, 2013 · No Comments · By

This past week, the buildings at 315 and 317 West Main Street were torn down. 315 held many businesses throughout its history, the main anchor in its final years being Random Row Books. Random Row was a place near and dear to my heart. I was an employee there for most of its three-plus year existence. Ryan Deramus, the owner, let me setup a rinky-dink tailoring operation in the corner of the bookstore despite me never having touched a sewing machine before (it’s now my full-time occupation).

Random Row was a locus of culture in Charlottesville. I wanted to write-up a little bit about the store and also some events from its brief but dense life. Please feel free to add your own in the comments!

I’d like to start with the mural outside of Random Row for two reasons. It’s one of the more distinctive elements of the bookstore, encapsulating the spirit of resistance the business represented. It’s also, unusually enough, one of the most prominent works of public art in Charlottesville now. Those stuck in parking lot 5pm traffic on Ridge-McIntire or cresting Water St. heading toward the University can’t help but notice the enormous portrait. That of course will change (if and) when the hotel is completed.

The image is from an Edward Curtis photograph of a Cheyenne Chief. It was meant to be a counter-monument to the one of Lewis and Clark across the street, hence the positioning of the chief looking over his shoulder to the intersection of Main and Ridge. The majority of the work was done by a high school class from Tandem Friends. Jay did the layout and overall coordination.

Here are two photos of the work in-progress, taken on my cellphone:

The mural also contains all the difficulties and contradictions inherent in the building itself.

Random Row Books was housed in a former car dealership and garage perched atop the former neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, also known as the Random Row neighborhood. Vinegar Hill, a middle-class African-American neighborhood, was a victim of the racist urban renewal policies of the mid-twentieth century. Most all of the neighborhood was deemed “urban blight” by city planners, despite housing 500 residents. Charlottesville residents approved a referendum to authorize this “redevelopment,” but due to a poll tax many of the African-American residents could not participate in the vote. The neighborhood was bulldozed after the city seized residents’ houses and property. The city then relocated the African-American population to the new subsidized-housing projects system. At this time, it was just Westhaven, which still houses predominantly (if not entirely) African-American families. Despite the city issuing an apology in 2011, this history is not well-enough appreciated in Charlottesville, in my opinion, considering the city committed such injustice and helped deepen even further the systemic racism of Charlottesville. (for more on Vinegar Hill/Random Row neighborhood history, check out C-Ville Tomorrow’s Cvillepedia page here)

Random Row Books’ building and the surrounding property was spared from this seizure and destruction because it was owned by a white man, Russell Mooney. For me, that was always a strange factor of the space: A radical establishment housed in a building spared due to white supremacy. It’s a paradox I think Ryan faced often as a white man attempting to facilitate, house and/or participate in the many radical actions and events at the bookstore. And while Ryan would never claim to have found the perfect way to deal with this issue, he also never let it preclude him from trying to make the bookstore welcome to as many people from as many backgrounds dealing with as many issues as humanly possible.

Later in the week I hope to do another post with a list of memorable events, shows, etc.

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