by Tim Gilmore, 9/14/2015
cont’d from Chamblin Bookmine, Part One of Seven
When Ron bought the old downtown building at 215 North Laura Street, the floors were covered in dirt and decades of decay. Piles of construction material, old photographic equipment, and picture frames filled the building, and partitions divided the upstairs into dozens of random little rooms.
A real estate speculator and junk collector had bought the building for less than $100,000 in the early 1990s, lived in the back of the second floor for years, then sold it to another speculator for $750,000 in 2005. A year later, Ron paid $930,000 for the building and put $650,000 into the renovation.
“We had to gut the entire inside of the building. There was a front stairway right here, which we took out,” he says, motioning toward the curved wall between the café and the book-sorting area behind the register and front desk. “There was another old stairway in the back that I rebuilt myself. It was entirely walled off. The stairs came down to about a man’s height, then just ended in the air behind the wall somebody had built to block it off. They just left the stairs hanging behind the wall. I built the rest of the stairway down to the first floor. That’s the stairway you use now to get to the books upstairs.
“And the old elevator space is still there, way in the back of the building, but we added the elevator up front. The old elevator would’ve been too expensive to tear out and rebuild, so we just left it. For the new elevator, I had to come into the building with my tractor, took me 30 minutes to get the tractor in here, but we got it in and we dug the hole for the elevator shaft.”
I ask Ron if he’s seen old photographs of the building from when other shops 60 or 80 or 100 years ago occupied this space. Address listings show shoe stores and jewelry shops here early in the 20th century.
He says he hasn’t seen pictures of this building directly, but several photos capture it at an angle, focusing instead on the 1925 Elks Club Building, with its five second-story arches, and Berney’s Restaurant around one corner and the Seth Thomas clock on the opposite street corner, or even the brick three-story building—two floors of apartments on top of a storefront—built in 1904, attached to Chamblin’s Uptown to the north.
Originally, Ron says, the second floor faced the street with large and lovely windows, and when Ron bought the building, he’d hoped to bring back that fenestration. The concrete walls that replaced the old glass, who knows when, he says, were too thick and too strong.
“I came in there with a jackhammer, you know, djgga, djgga, djgga, djgga, djgga, I hit it and hit it. I mean, I came at it for a year, but eventually that was it. There were higher priorities.”
Ron made no big announcement when he bought the building. It fits his character. He makes his business, thus his influence on the culture and his own personal effect upon the city, quietly. In some ways, in this age of self-promotion, of voices clamoring desperately to tamp down any other voice in order to be heard, Ron’s quietness, his patient but intense and burning gentleness, is his greatest entrepreneurial and cultural strength.
Sometimes downtown neighbors approached him when doors were open on a Saturday or Sunday morning, peering into the long-boarded-up building, and asked him what the hell he was doing.
When downtown residents and business leaders heard through the grapevine what Ron wrought in that shabby old building, some of them asked him what kind of foolish chance he was taking, wasn’t it a horrible gamble?
Ron leans forward, runs the fingers of one hand across the back of the other, back and forth, unconsciously, and looks out the window.
“Let me tell you,” he says, “I never had that feeling. I never did. If I see the end image, and I know the whole process of getting there, I have no doubt, not anymore.”
People told him he should’ve expanded into the suburbs, opened a new store near the beaches, taken out space in a shopping mall. Instead, he says, he wanted to increase his portion of the fabric of the central city. Even Mayor John Peyton came by with an entourage when the downtown store first opened and asked Ron why he’d expanded his business in the heart of town, no doubt looking for a soundbite so he could include Chamblin’s Uptown in his own mayoral successes. Still Ron thinks the mayor seemed slightly puzzled as to his decision.
Ron looks off toward the café, then back out the window toward the Gothic Revival church across Laura Street.
“I don’t know just how to explain it. At this point, I have no doubt. I have no doubt, but I still have fear. I don’t know how you have no doubt but retain the fear. You always have the fear. The fear is what’s always made me work so much, and it’s still there, and it still does. The fear is what’s always made me aggressive.”