Late-night food trucks transform Tar Heel town into taco town

By Blake Richardson

Someone painted a giant mural over the brick walls of the garage — a field of grass and rocks under a light blue sky. It looks like it’s been there forever and probably took months to paint.

But it’s hard to pay much attention to the mural because the old school bus in the parking lot is captivating the crowd of customers.

Blue and purple string lights resembling glow sticks snake around the outline of the bus, which is covered in light blue paint — even the windows.

There’s an opening on the right side of the bus where a line of people wait for a late-night meal from City Bus Burritos and Tacos.

A menu boasting treats like tacos and quesadillas overhangs the opening to the food truck, where a couple of workers take orders and prepare food under florescent lighting that poses a stark contrast in the dimly lit parking lot. The young locals wait for food while watching a Spanish soap opera on the small TV that hangs on the side of the bus.

City Bus is just outside the earshot of music blasting down Franklin Street blocks to the right. The song ‘Pumpin Blood’ by NONONO comes from Chapel Hill Tire’s parking lot, where a crowd surrounds Mexican food truck Monterrey.

If the City Bus workers look past the line of customers, they can see the flashing lights of a small sign in the distance. Up close, the word “taco” on the sign becomes clear, and it  lures pedestrians to Mexican food truck Taqueria el Tejano.

Chapel Hill and Carrboro are dotted with food trucks, from the Parlez-Vous Crepe truck, to donut truck Dough Broughs, to a truck that’s the brainchild of Sup Dogs and Pantana Bob’s.  But the most competitive market is arguably the late-night taco. In a town where it seems at least one restaurant goes out of business each year, these trucks thrive despite the concentrated competition.


Mac is the owner of City Bus, but he won’t tell you that. He wouldn’t even share his last name.

“I don’t like titles,” he said.

The bus may look playful with its glowing lights, pictures of food and seemingly endless handwritten menu items. But Mac is dedicated to business. Even when it was too early for customers to start forming a line, he was busy working on a screen that was barely visible when looking up at him seated inside the truck.

“Good service, good food,” Mac said. “That’s what I want.”

It’s Mac’s outgoing, kind personality that makes City Bus the favorite food truck for Winston Pace, a Carrboro resident and part-time UNC-Chapel Hill student.

“He’s a real character,” Pace said. “He’s just awesome.”

City Bus came to Chapel Hill in 2011, but Mac said he’s been in the food truck business for about 10 years. City Bus has taken off, drawing a crowd of young students and the occasional older Carrboro resident.

“You can ask the people everywhere about City Bus, and they’ll tell you good food, good service,” Mac said.

City Bus brings a spicy flair to its food. Bottles of the bus’s sauce — one red and one green — sit on the metal windowsill of the truck with a plate hanging above. The words “our sauce is very spicy, hot hot” are written on the plate in red ink.

The homemade sauce is another standout for Pace. And he likes that he can customize his food.

Mac is proud of City Bus’s unique taste.

“People want to eat something different,” he said.


Hans Vargas, one of two people working at the Monterrey food truck, goes to work at 6 p.m. on a Friday.

He doesn’t finish until 3 a.m.

Vargas works the same hours on Saturday. For each of the three taco trucks, these are two of the busiest nights each week.

“It’s food for students,” Vargas said.

Drunken students, to be exact. Vargas said most of Monterrey’s customers stop by the food truck after a night out at a Chapel Hill bar. Most are happy, some are flirtatious, but all are hungry for Mexican food.

With fresh green paint, flashing lights and menus with light-up borders, Monterrey is the most polished looking of the food trucks. The vehicle is even equipped with a stereo to blast music.

But Vargas said the food sets Monterrey apart.

“Everything is fresh,” he said.

The food at Monterrey is restaurant-quality because Monterrey did not start out as a food truck.

Monterrey began as a Chapel Hill restaurant in 1996 and later opened a second location in Carrboro. The food truck is the newest addition to the business, and it can be found about halfway between the two restaurants.

The food truck offerings, which are prepared at the restaurant beforehand, are just a sample of some items on Monterrey’s menu.

Vargas has been working at Monterrey’s food truck for six months, and he has seen the business prosper. In fact, sometimes the truck gets so busy that four workers cram inside instead of two.

On slow nights, the truck brings in revenue by renting the spots in Chapel Hill Tire’s parking lot — free for customers, but $5 for everyone else.

While City Bus is Pace’s favorite, he comes to Monterrey at least three times each week to grab some food after work. He enjoys the variety of items on Monterrey’s  menu.

“They also sell chips, which none of the other ones do,” Pace said.

But Vargas said the competition doesn’t affect Monterrey too much because the other two trucks draw more customers from Carrboro.

“It’s too much taco trucks,” Vargas said. “Only in Chapel Hill is only one.”


Taqueria el Tejano is the fifth truck that 23-year-old owner Roberto Garcia’s family has operated.

Garcia is from Houston, Texas, and his family opened a food truck called El Taquito when Garcia was 5 years old. The family moved to North Carolina when he was 9 years old and started selling the food at night to people working in factories and tobacco fields in Henderson.

The right side of the metallic truck is covered with pictures and colorful signs describing items on the menu. A collection of colorful Jarritos sodas in glass bottles rest against the window of the truck. Positioned at the front of the nearly empty Wings Over parking lot, Taqueria el Tejano radiates light.

“We have our own style, our unique flavor,” Garcia said.

This truck is Victoria Garcia’s favorite. The Carrboro resident comes once a week for a corn taco with lime, lettuce, tomato, cheese and other toppings. She pairs the treat with a Jarritos soda. She prefers the truck because of the quality of the meat.

“It has no fat,” she said while sitting at the small wooden table propped next to the truck. “And it’s juicy.”

Roberto Garcia’s mom prepares the food at home each day for her son to sell at night. The family recipe traces back to Garcia’s grandmother, giving the food truck an authentic flavor of San Luís Potosí, the Mexican region that Garcia’s mom is from.

Taqueria el Tejano draws a wide variety of customers, including students, residents, visitors at nearby hotel and Tar Heels fans going to catch a game.

Roberto Garcia’s favorite part about the business is his interactions with a wide array of people — from the friendly conversations to a “thank you” at the cash register.

“Good food to people, that’s always good to see,” he said.


Pace has a theory that the three food trucks are in cahoots.

“I have always wondered if they had connections to each other in any way, or if it’s some sort of taco mafia going on,” he said. “That’s a true mystery of the town.”

Do they buy supplies in bulk together to make food cheaper? Or coordinate sales to fix the competition? Pace doesn’t know, but he likes to think there’s something.

If there is a conspiracy between the owners, they’re keeping it well-hid. Mac seemed to hardly notice the competitors nearby.

“I don’t know about what they serve,” Mac said. “I care about mine.”

Vargas also did not seem worried about competition because Monterrey is the closest to downtown Chapel Hill.

Victoria Garcia suspects early restaurant closing times allow the food trucks to thrive. Because they’re the only places open, the three trucks can dominate late-night business.

“I love other restaurants,” she said. “But I’m not hungry before 9 p.m.”

Each truck caters to its niche — a group of loyalists who decide which truck they like best and keep coming back. Those customers allow each truck to prosper.

“Everyone you ask will have a different favorite,” Pace said.

Roberto Garcia said he appreciates the competition.

“It makes you want to be better,” he said. “Makes you want your service to be better, your food to be better.

“So it betters you as a person and as a business owner.”

Edited by Ryan Wilusz

A new norm of perfection: Women find meaning in makeup

By Cinnamon Moore

Opening the door of a Sephora store is like opening Pandora’s box.

Normally built within its partner store, J.C. Penney, the cosmetic giant stands in sharp contrast to the relatively relaxed and neutral-colored department store.

Bright, white lights draw the eye’s attention to a space filled with a kaleidoscope of colors. Black and white-striped walls lend a Mad Hatter feeling to the space, beckoning those passing by to drop in just to have a look at the creatively controlled chaos. As planned, many women succumb to the not-so-quiet calling.

After taking the necessary seconds to adjust to the sheer magnanimity of a cosmetic store, one can marvel at just how many products are actually sold in this one relatively small space.

At least 50 mini-aisles fill the store, with a cosmetic company claiming either a side or a whole aisle. In these islands of small, packaged products, one can find every shade of matte, gloss or colored lipstick (there’s a huge difference between the three), makeup primer — a foundation that meets your skin tone and chemical preference — concealer, about a hundred different shades of brown eyeshadow, lip liner… The list goes on.

Urban Decay, first mini-aisle to the right, has a hundred different shades just in its Vice Lipstick line.

With each row of products color-coded and spotlighted, the effect of the cosmetic store can be dizzying. Mirrors adorn every possible surface so there’s never an excuse not to try on that shade of Nighthawk matte lipstick.

All of these products cater to the new, makeup-savvy woman of 2017.

With the growth of the cosmetic industry as proof of the world’s obsession with makeup, any curious person may wonder at the reason behind the boom in beauty products.

A survey funded by Renfrew Center Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to the education and prevention of eating disorders, found that 44 percent of women experienced negative feelings when not wearing makeup. That means nearly half of women in America feel uncomfortable in their bare skin and pressured to put on a mask.

Many have begun questioning the world’s reliance on makeup. A movement was even started by singer Alicia Keys promoting #NoMakeup and encouraging women to feel comfortable in their own skin — no makeup necessary.

Yet, in the midst of two warring sides telling ladies what to do with their face, a group of women journalists, bloggers and social media users have voiced their disregard for the opinions of others. Instead of a social obligation, these women emphasize that wearing makeup is fun and an expression of personality.

An artist with a new, blank canvas every morning.

With all these voices showering women with opinions, it begs the question of why the average young woman wears makeup: for men, for her peers or simply for herself?

“I’m drawn to stylish, classy, sophisticated women. How they carry themselves, the clothing they wear…and I think makeup is definitely a part of that. It adds a bit of mystery to who they are.” – Amiel Elbitar, 24

Using makeup is not a novel concept. Throughout history, women of all eras have applied makeup to conform to the flitting trends of the time. From the infamous dark kohl lining in ancient Egypt to the shaved eyebrows and ghostly pale powdered faces of the Elizabethan era, women have been altering the look of their faces for centuries. But while cosmetics were previously used as an aspect to make women stand out, now it helps women blend in.

“I feel like everyone is staring at me if I go out barefaced,” said Nicole Gonzalez, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In today’s culture, blemishes should be quickly hidden and the natural attractive aspects of the face enhanced. We live in a society of perfection.

A 2013 study by financial website revealed that the average woman spends $15,000 on makeup in her lifetime.

Gonzalez admitted that she spends around $100 a month on cosmetics and watches various YouTube tutorials on how to use them. Her cache includes an array of eyeliners to make her deep brown eyes pop, highlighters and contour powder to make her face more angular and her cheekbones more pronounced, and a dizzying array of lipsticks to reflect whatever mood she’s in that day.

Alyssa Lashway, a recent UNC-Charlotte graduate, said as an individual with naturally oily skin, she often feels self-conscious about her face looking shiny.

“I don’t mind going out without makeup,” Lashway said, “but I do find myself thinking about how shiny my skin is probably looking.”

Because first impressions are very visual, Lashway said, she often feels pressured to make sure her face is powdered and absent of its natural shine.

“It’s definitely on a case-by-case basis, but I usually prefer women with makeup. It enhances beauty to a certain extend.” – Matthew McDonough, senior at St. Lawrence University

As a society frequently reprimanded for its obsession with perfection, it’s not surprising that a flawless face would be added to the laundry list of considerations toward the ideal individual.

“I wear makeup because if I don’t, I feel like I have no life in my face … and lots of imperfections,” Gonzalez said.

“Society has stigmatized women who don’t wear makeup,” said Amiel Elbitar, 24. “Women want to look good and have others see them as put together. Makeup is now a nuance of what and who they are.”

The United States is now the biggest cosmetic market in the world, with just above $60 billion in cosmetic revenue. From highlighters to mascara, the average woman is building up an impressive collection of beauty products. Essentially, makeup has become the norm of our society, a fact that cosmetic companies are both profiting from and exploiting.

In 2015, L’Oréal spent $2.2 billion in advertising and was rewarded with a $3.5 billion net profit. While not inherently mandatory, makeup products are simply seen as a way of life now, even bleeding into the professional realm.

“I feel like if I don’t have makeup on then I am not professionally presentable,” said MaryKate Frisch, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A study funded by Procter & Gamble in 2011 found that when given a choice between women with and without makeup, a majority of participants, both men and women, judged women with makeup as more competent.

Like a pair of pressed slacks or a button-down blazer, cosmetics have become a way for women to look simply more put together and qualified.

“Makeup is sort of expected,” said Phillip Love, a 22-year-old student at Palmer University. “It’s become part of a woman’s outfit.”

Cosmetics to a woman are equitable to a haircut on a man — just a bit more expensive. And like a great haircut, women who have mastered the art of makeup, more often than not, receive high commendation.

“I think women without makeup are more easily approachable, absolutely. But I still find myself drawn to women who are wearing it, even if it’s just a little bit of makeup.” – Phillip Love, 22, student at Palmer University

Over the last few years, women and feminists have begun embracing the idea of makeup as both a creative outlet and a tool, instead of a necessity.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, if you got dressed up, it was simply to please men, or it was something you were doing because society demands it,” Nancy Etcoff, a psychology professor at Harvard University, told the New York Times in an interview. “Women and feminists today see this as their own choice, and it may be an effective tool.”

Matthew McDonough, a student at St. Lawrence University, said makeup can make women look either professional or sexy depending on the situation or their mood.

“On an active basis, I find the women in my life wear makeup more for themselves than for others,” he said.

Makeup makes them feel not only more attractive, but also more in control.

Essentially, many women are embracing makeup as an avenue to curtail how the world sees them. They’re taking something that the world deems mandatory and using it as a tool in their arsenal.

Makeup is now, whether we like it or not, an integral part of our society. While strongly dependent on it, women have the choice to use it as a crutch or use it as a means of personal expression. From eyeshadow colors to choice of lipstick, makeup can be a fun and creative way to add dimensions to one’s image and a flare of personality— like choosing an outfit for the day.

But, with this creativity comes an underlying understanding that makeup shouldn’t be determinant of self-worth. This means that while it may be more expected in certain circumstances, like business casual attire, it isn’t needed for every endeavor out of the house.

“I feel like people expect you to be looking fresh-faced all the time, which is not always the case,” Lashway said.

With a busy life, she said, there are simply things that are more important than a perfectly put-on face.

While it’s easy to get lost in the endless aisles of a Sephora store, it’s equally easy to get lost in the need for makeup. The key is to remember that everyone is trying to be a perfect human in an imperfect society.

Edited by Sara Salinas

Surplus Sids: the home of Carrboro’s most eclectic cast of characters

For over 30 years, Surplus Sids has been the go-to store for costumes, toys, military memorabilia and odd furniture in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. (photo by Sofie DeWulf)

By Sofie DeWulf

Two young men, college students by the look of it, walk by the store, eyes wandering over the array of furniture out front. One pauses. He looks intrigued. “Is it a junk store?” he asks, like his friend might have the answer. His question can be heard inside. The scratched and faded black door that marks the entrance is old and doesn’t do much to keep sound out. I notice that Sid pretends like he doesn’t hear him. He knows what people think about his store at first glance. He laughs about the elderly woman with blue hair who came in a few weeks back, looked around for a little bit, then turned to him and said, “God, there’s a lot of shit in here.”

She’s certainly not wrong. At first glance, the store seems a bit overwhelming. Every square inch – the walls and cabinets and shelves and floors – is covered in stuff. Stuff that, without really looking, seems like just a whole bunch of junk, the kind you find in a yard sale exclusively featuring odds and ends, or in an older relative’s attic that really needs to be cleaned out. There’s a strong connection to the latter, for the store smells like the mix of mothballs and worn leather one often associates with the elderly.

It’s not simply junk here, though, or “a lot of shit.” You would need to do some serious browsing, but there’s plenty to be found. There’s a suit of armor from the 1500s next to a collection of old rifles fixed on the wall. In the back, there’s a room full of costumes. Not to mention all the military items, including multiple displays of military buttons, a whole cabinet with helmets worn by soldiers in wars past and rare, old uniforms hung up around the store.

However, it isn’t just the items that make Surplus Sids interesting. Carrboro’s own military surplus store attracts a plethora of characters.  Everyone from the owner Sid and his “sidekick” Gary Messenger to the wide range of customers that walk into the store is a character. Sid’s story, the story behind “the junk” and the stories that happen when a place has been around for so long are what makes Surplus Sids so special.

The man behind the store

If Surplus Sids took a human form, it would be Barry Keith. Barry, otherwise known as Sid, seems like the type who’d own a military surplus store, simply based on his appearance. His staple clothing item is a brown leather jacket with a skeleton pin on the lapel and the word “infidel” written in orange on the front. He has long, slick-backed hair with a full moustache and beard that are fading from a reddish-orange to white, betraying his age of 62. He wears glasses that rest low on the bridge of his nose and folds his hands when he talks, completing the look of a slightly younger Santa Claus who also happens to be a biker.

A native North Carolinian, Sid went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and became the first person in his family to earn a university degree, studying political science and history. He graduated in the mid-‘70s and spent the next three to four years as a “soldier of fortune.” He doesn’t reveal a lot of details from these years, but he will mysteriously divulge that he worked for the “intelligence community.” He did a lot of traveling during this time to Central America, West Africa, the Far East and Europe. His love of foreign cultures is reflected in his language skills – he’s fluent in Spanish and Russian and can get by in Arabic and Dari Afghan – and in his choice to marry Tatiana, a beautiful Russian woman 15 years his junior.

This love of the foreign cultures can also be seen in the items in his store. Sid likes to get military surplus from all over and he prides himself in knowing exactly where everything is from.

“Look at this shirt,” he says, pulling clothing on a rack to the side to reveal a blue and white striped shirt hanging amongst a few others like it. “These are Russian.”

He walks to another part of the store, “These are Yugoslavian military pajamas.” Then he nods at a red, leather jacket, “This here is from the Italian Air Force.”

He continues to make his way around the store and point things out to me: “These khakis are the from U.S. Foreign Service. The red tunic hanging there is from the Irish Guard. That hat over there with the stripes on it is Hungarian. And this one with the lighter green is Swedish.”

It’s easy to see his passion for history as well. In a locked glass case in the back of the store, Sid keeps his most valuable military memorabilia, which belonged to what he likes to call “quasi-famous people.” In it you can find everything from General Patton’s riding crop to a hat that belonged to the first Russian to shake hands with the Americans at the Elbe River in 1945.

After his years as a “soldier of fortune,” Sid tried to settle down. He was in the restaurant business for a few years in South Carolina, but eventually decided to sell his restaurants. He came back to Chapel Hill in 1988, the year he started Surplus Sids.

The beginning of Surplus Sids

To understand how that happened, it’s important to know that Sid worked for a surplus man named Richard when he was in college. Sid had a hobby of collecting hats, a lot of which he got from Richard.

“I’m not talking like baseball caps or anything,” he said. “I’m talking real, honest-to-God hats, like bowler derby hats and fedoras and other military hats like that.”

By the time Sid returned to Chapel Hill, Richard’s health was failing him. He was retiring and closing down Poor Richards, his warehouse.

“Well, if you’re going to retire,” Sid told him, “I’m gonna take off where you left off.”

So, he bought the warehouse, cleaned it out, kept the good stuff and started his own military surplus store. He knew what and from whom to order from working for Richard and dealing with different militaries, so he started ordering.

“That was 1988, and I said I figure I’ll do that for about five, or six, or seven years,” he tells me, but Surplus Sids passed the 30-year mark on May 15, 2015..

For all that time, Surplus Sids, with its eclectic mix of outdoor gear, “Frankenstein furniture,” thrift items, toys, costumes and military surplus, has catered to every customer imaginable.

“A lot of people in retail say you have to narrow down your demographic,” Sid says. “I’ve never been able to do that. Mine’s been ages 6-76 and whatever else in between. Rich, poor, indifferent, otherwise, black, white, blue, yellow, green. It’s whatever’s in this universe.”

Visitors from every walk of life

Often, it’s college students. Surplus Sids does a lot of business with theater and film, and there’s always students looking for costumes for parties or Halloween. Savannah Putnam, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, came in last year to buy a cowgirl hat.

“I actually went during a torrential downpour and the whole back of the store was flooded,” she said. “But Sid was very helpful and welcoming.”

Sid likes to point out how his store attracts bizarre characters. There’s Steven, a young man with schizophrenia who loves coins and brings in a bag every day to trade with Sid. There was the 12-year-old boy a few years back who bought a real Egyptian sarcophagus from the store because he wanted it in his room. Gary Messenger, the 68-year-old character who’s worked alongside Sid for the past six years, likes to recall the story of the old couple that came to the store in 2012 looking for survival stuff “back when the Mayan calendar said the world was going to end.”

Kenny Azecusky, a bartender at Krave in Carrboro, decided to stop by Sids before his shift started at the bar down the street because he was “looking into stuff recently for the concept of a character.” I discovered that Kenny is into LARPing, or live action role-playing. According to Kenny, a lot of the items in the store, such as the molle vests and old license plates, would make a great post-apocalyptic look for his upcoming zombie LARP.

Celebrity customers

Surplus Sids has also had its fair share of celebrity customers, who can be seen on the “gallery of famous visitors” sign at the front of the store. Tyler the Creator, Robin Williams, Steven Colbert and Kirsten Dunst are just a few names written on the little white board.

Sid has stories about all of them. Robin Williams came into the store in 1998 when he was shooting “Patch Adams,” because the film crew bought camouflage netting from the store to use on set. Sid says, “He was on the whole time he was in here,” trying things on, making comments and cracking jokes.

Sid shows me a photo of Kirsten Dunst taken right outside of the store. She’s wearing a blue dress and smiling. “Sid, love your store,” is written in pen on the photo. The actress was in town because she was dating a guy in a band who was playing at Cat’s Cradle. She came into Sids with her boyfriend and bought a jacket. A little while later, Sid says, he turned on the TV and saw her wearing that same jacket at an event during fashion week in Paris.

I no longer wonder why this place has lasted as long as it has. There’s a lot of history and culture amidst “a lot of shit;” and there are the customers, who always bring something new to the table. Sid has yet to grow tired of it. In my time with him, I never asked about the future of the store, or when he thinks he’ll give it all up and retire, because he seems like the type of person who doesn’t like to think about that kind of stuff. At some point, though, he gave me an answer: “If it ever stops being interesting, that’s when I’m gonna stop doing it.”

Edited by Molly Weybright

The third place: local bookstores grapple with shifting trends

By Leah Asmelash

The smell of paper fills the store — a mix of almond and vanilla and something slightly floral. Bookshelves line the walls of the store, but the open middle space is filled with tables of books, many with written staff reviews sticking out. There’s a kid’s corner in the back with stuffed animals and games, a used book room, an event room and a corner devoted to local books, including travel, culinary, culture and sports. An indie rock song plays softly overhead. A plush chair sits pushed against the window, facing the store’s staff picks. Behind the front desk, a young employee peeks out behind a stack of books and smiles at every customer that walks in, asking if they need any help.

Customers are scattered throughout the space. Someone laughs at a passage they read and puts the book down with a smile. Another is engrossed in a novel, standing still beside the table, head ducked in concentration. They all have come to spend their Tuesday night with the stacks at Flyleaf Books.

Located in a strip mall in Chapel Hill, N.C., Flyleaf Books is one of the largest independent bookstores in town, with a collection of over 20,000 units. They host a number of book clubs every month and offer a membership program and online ordering through their website, allowing readers to stop by and pick up their purchases.

Independent bookstores have been in decline for years, the cause changing each time. First it was mega bookstores, the Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Millions of the world. Then it was Amazon, and then e-books. And yet, you can still find an independent bookstore almost anywhere in the United States, and their numbers are growing. In 2012, book sales in independent stores grew by almost 8 percent. In 2015, independent bookstore sales were up 10 percent, while 2016 saw an increase of just under 5 percent.

E-book competition

“For the last 30, 40 years, there’s always been something that’s going to kill the independent bookstore,” said Jamie Fiocco, who opened Flyleaf Books in November 2009 — at the height of the e-book surge.  “Once the internet came about, you had to really be a businessperson to have a bookstore, so a lot of bookstores closed.”

Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer of the American Booksellers Association, said over email that independent booksellers are a resilient and entrepreneurial group, traits which have allowed them to experience growth.

“The national trends are clear,” Cullen said. “New stores are opening, established stores are finding new owners and a new generation is coming into the business as both owner/managers and frontline booksellers.”

Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, discussed the importance of the localism movement to the success of independent bookstores.

“The fact is that independent bookstores and independent retail in general is going through a pretty decent period because tens of millions of consumers make decisions to shop at locally-owned independent businesses,” he said.

When asked about the impact of e-books on bookstores, Teicher responded, “E-books are a piece of our business, but we kind of coexist.”

He also pointed out that the e-book market has somewhat leveled off and has begun to experience modest decline. “E-books aren’t going away for sure, but more importantly, print books are never going away,” he said.

Fiocco had a similar viewpoint. Flyleaf Books sells e-books, but she said they don’t concentrate on those sales.

“There’s no money in it to start with, and it’s not really worth our time,” she said. “Quite honestly, our core shoppers aren’t interested in e-books.”

But data shows the amount of books Americans are reading, both print and electronic, is declining each year. So who cares about independent bookstores? Why do they matter?

The third place

Fiocco said bookstores are vital because they fulfill the role of the third place for many people. This third place, the first two places being the home and workplace, serves as a gathering place for the community. It is a place where people can congregate and discuss, like a home away from home.

“They’re a place where people can come and talk about ideas and issues that are pertinent to the community,” Fiocco said. “It’s a gathering place. It’s like the barbershop or the coffee shop, where people can talk and think and kind of learn about new things, or to educate themselves on things they feel like they should know about.”

Additionally, Teicher said independent bookstores succeed by being the third place in a community.

“I think the important thing today is that successful indie bookstores exist well beyond the four walls of the store,” he said. “They succeed because they engage, they have to be engaged, in their communities. That’s really critical.”

Some bookstores today are taking their role as the third place to the next level by combining two or more concepts into one store, Teicher said, mentioning bookstores sometimes double as bars or summer day camps. Still, he was not oblivious to the difficulties surrounding the business.

“Our margins are very small; competition is fierce,” he said.  “You’ve got to create a compelling, fun environment to attract customers to want to come shop in your store.”

Fiocco agreed. “We sell people the experience of going into a bookstore, learning about books they never have heard about, or just didn’t know anything about, when they first walked in,” she said. “We don’t depend on all the bestseller lists, and that’s why we exist. People come in and we’re friends or we’re acquaintances by the time people become regulars.”

Lane Jacobson, buyer and floor manager of Flyleaf, said the store is always working on ways to engage the community and expand its reach. Flyeleaf hosts over 300 events a year, including community forums.

“Right now we’re also looking into things like movie clubs, yoga classes, wine and coloring nights and other things,” he stated over email. “One of the best things about being a small business with such strong ties to the community is that we can be very flexible and adapt to the needs and desires of our customers much more quickly than a big box store can.”

Closing shop

Despite Flyleaf’s success within the community, not all bookstores have been so lucky. The Bookshop, a used and rare bookstore located just over a mile from Flyleaf, has been in business since 1985, but will be closing its doors this July.

The Bookshop is built like a narrow tunnel lined with books. The shelves stretch from ceiling to floor and emphasize the compact nature of the store. Customers twist and turn between the shelves, muttering apologies as they brush against other patrons. Despite their close proximity, the store is essentially the polar opposite of the wide and open Flyleaf Books.

Betty Schumacher, manager of The Bookshop, has been working there for 10 years. She said the store has been pretty slow and quiet during her time at The Bookshop, despite the establishment’s location on Franklin Street, less than a mile from UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We get a lot of traffic,” she said. “But sales are pretty flat and have been flat for probably the last eight years.”

Schumacher stressed the importance of the community, something she believes The Bookshop missed out on due to its location.

“We do get a lot of university students in, in the winter, but we don’t get the townspeople,” she said. “And the townspeople are the people who buy the books. Our best months are July and August. That’s when the townspeople come back to town.”

Schumacher also discussed the importance of parking, saying the lack of adequate parking around the store hurts sales as well.

Shifting trends

The Bookshop’s predicament isn’t necessarily indicative of larger trends regarding independent bookstores, which, as Cullen pointed out, have been growing over recent years. But it does show how some customers, young people especially, are hesitant to purchase books.

“A lot of people blame it on Kindles and those kinds of things, but I really think it’s that people are so drawn to electronics in general, that there’s just fewer people reading,” Schumacher said. “The average median age of our customer base is probably 40s and 50s, even with the student population added in. So I just think younger people are reading less.”

Schumacher said she doesn’t see that trend changing any time soon, and she was not nearly as optimistic as Teicher and Fiocco about the future of the independent bookstore. Reading, she said, will never go away and books will probably take a different form, such as electronic.

“But bookstores with books in them, I think, are becoming a thing of the past,” she said.

Despite her grim prediction, Schumacher said she’ll miss the store, the smell, the books and the customers. Her experience at The Bookshop has been enjoyable, and she said she is sad to see it go.

To readers, Schumacher gave this advice: “Buy books, and buy items, at independent stores,” she said. “Whenever they can, if they can, support local small business. Otherwise, we’re going to lose them.”

Edited by: Sarah Muzzillo