I’m sitting in a narrow hallway outside a coffee shop and bookstore called Shakespeare & Company. The door of this coffee/beer/wine/book/cooking supply shop has not one but five Christmas jingle bells hanging from the knob, to be certain the proprietors don’t miss a guest’s approach. (The bells’ effectiveness is undermined somewhat by the fact that the other half of the double doors is propped open.) They needn't have worried.
This endearing spot is located in Kernersville, North Carolina, in a delightfully confusing building that once housed the Hooker Furniture Factory. The outside of the complex (so named in a most literal sense) is rustic, variegated brickwork with cast iron balconies, climbing vines, and a selection of succulent bushes lining the base. A fountain, surrounded by white rose bushes, trickles over moss-covered stone in the center of a small courtyard paved in meandering circular patterns.
The inside combines industrial brick and heavy steel supports with renovated woodwork and matte cast iron. Vague signs direct you to one boutique shop after another, with descriptive names like Not Just Teapots, Splurges, and Paper Sassy. Sadly, for every occupied storefront there are four empty ones: some actively under construction and giving off a powerful odor of sawdust and hot drill bits, others dark and quiet.
But for the music playing in the eerily empty halls, I would expect to see Scooby Doo and the gang sneaking around a corner in pursuit of a masked villain. The scene before me has the same muted palate of colors that characterized the old-school version of the cartoons I watched as a child. The low-ceilinged hallways and odd assortment of levels, staircases, and exits only adds to the air of mystery about the place.
In the time that I’ve been sitting here, I have seen perhaps three or four people pass by, each with the same wondering look in their eyes. Like me, they are explorers venturing into the unknown: somewhat baffled in the absence of a map, oddly reverent of the echoing corridors, and generally uncertain what they will find around the next corner.
Granted, it is 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. Not everyone has the freedom to carry her job with her. Besides, this isn’t really a place for laptops and power cords, WiFi hotspots and Bluetooth. Here, there should be nothing but battered paperbacks, poetry recitations, craft classes, and farmers’ markets.
I sit back and take another sip of my Midsummer’s Frap (caramel, hazelnut, and cinnamon)* as I turn to page seventy-five of Metalogicon, John of Salisbury’s twelfth-century treatise on logic. He’s quoting Vergil now, from the Georgics: “Happiness comes from understanding the causes of things, / And nonchalantly treading under foot all fears”. Treading under foot all fears. I like the sound of that.
The more I think about it, the more the combination seems appropriate. Shakespeare’s formal education, what there was of it, would likely have been informed by John’s ideas about classical learning, Latin, and logic. As the saying goes, it’s all connected.
After a brief and self-satisfied pause in honor of my own epiphany, I wander downstairs to a dimly lit wine shop affiliated with a local North Carolina winery. While I sample Semillon and Malbec, the manager and I chat for an hour about viticulture, wine judging, economics, the job market, age discrimination, retail service, grape varieties, merchandizing politics, education, and health care. We don’t resolve any of the world’s problems, but when I leave I feel the sense of pensive well being that only comes from establishing a genuine connection with another human being.
All in all, a productive afternoon? Perhaps not. A soul-satisfying one? Without a doubt.
*The cinnamon must be Puck’s doing; the first sip of reddish powder sends me into a coughing fit from which it takes a good ten minutes to recover.