Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

My Town

            I live in an old house on the main street of Hillsborough, N.C., population 6,162, a  rural village and county seat now undergoing major change ever since the Old South turned into the “Sunbelt,” and Money magazine wrote up our area as one of the best places in America to live.  What’s it like to be “discovered” after 250 years?

A quick walk down King Street tells the tale.

 Whatever you need, the Dual Supply hardware store has got it---though proprietor Wesley Woods may be the only one who can find it on the crowded shelves which have looked “pretty much the same” ever since he started working here at “8 or 9 years old, putting up stock, sweeping, and changing tires.” He’s not worried about the big box stores going in down by the interstate: “Your people are your business, and my people aren’t going away.” There’s a steady stream in and out as contractor John Shoneman picks up a couple pounds of nails and “just writes it down;” other customers “pay so much per month.” There’s no computer.

Across the street we find Evelyn Lloyd’s venerable little family drugstore which she opened in l987 after working alongside her daddy, Allen Alexander Lloyd, in the James Pharmacy for years and years. They had a soda fountain then, Evelyn says, and sold “gift sets of Evening in Paris at Christmas. Daddy knew everybody---anybody who needed help.  If  they couldn’t pay, that was okay.” Evelyn’s father was on the Town council for 30 years; she has served for 16.  Evelyn worries about the problems that have come with development. “It’s a lot to think about,” she says.“We’re forcing people to move out---where are they going to go?”  Traffic is an increasing problem, too: “You can’t get across the street now.”

Nestled in between her pharmacy and the Carolina Game and Fish, owned by Wesley’s son Jeff ( now featuring a sign for its current Turkey Contest, Entry Fee $15, in the window, along with hunting bows, fishing tackle, camo clothing and bright orange hats) we find Cup A Joe with its latte, cappacino, and multiply pierced baristas, doing a thriving business. We ain’t quaint no  more.

 Even more sophisticated is the authentic patisserie two doors down, owned and run by French-speaking Eric Valour, recently of Lyon. He’s doing fine after 18 months in business; he “just got an order this Tuesday for 100 people,” according to waitress Annette Talbert, whose husband works in the Game and Fish.( Just like the Old South, the New South is a little bit incestuous---but in a new way.)

I join Mayor Tom Stevens for coffee in Cup A Joe, his “morning office.” The Wooden Nickel bar is his afternoon office. Everybody seems to like Tom, a longtime resident and  organizational development consultant who ran for office because he “had a sense that this town was on the verge,” and he wants Hillsborough to “be successful in a way that is good for human beings.” Mayor Stevens sees a “huge agreement in town right now, given the diversity.” He touts Hillsborough’s “authenticity,” which he sees as deriving from its smalltown character and unique sense of place; its strong heritage, from Occaneechi Native American roots to Revolutionary and Civil War history, to  jazz singers, millworkers, and farmers; its current prosperity (“We’re in good shape, with a 40 per cent business base and 3.3 per cent unemployment rate”); and its vitality, with a newly vibrant street life epitomized by the  downtown “Last Friday “ festival every month featuring the arts, barbecue, bluegrass, and blues.

Our conversation is constantly interrupted by citizens coming up to talk to the Mayor, stating the need for “park benches for bus riders to wait on,” asking if the town is giving away biodegradable bags, etc. Mike Troy, erstwhile lawyer and bar owner (named “He’s Not Here”) comes up to quote a poem he’ll recite when he is sworn in (April 7) as the first Poet Laureate of  Hillsborough. It ends with the verse

Let me share my metaphorical wreath with you,
Metaphorically placing it on your composite brow;
Celebrating this place, celebrating this day,
Joining hands in this Here and Now.
        I thank you.

Some shadows loom over this sunny celebration of the Sunbelt, of course.  Hillsborough’s  “Here and Now” includes  major issues yet to be solved, such as affordable housing, not enough water, and too much traffic. The Mayor wonders how to “create a sense of belongingness for everybody, to bring everybody into the conversation”---especially those big new suburbs outside of town, like Waterstone. Bulldozers rumble in every direction. “We are under huge development pressure. Now we have to choose our future, and we have to do it right.” He points out that almost seven years of planning and wrangling went into the large Weaver Street Market project  which has finally broken ground  at the entrance to downtown.

Up Churton Street at Tony’s Barbecue, the Price brothers, Donny and Lee, aren’t so sure about all this.  Like the Dual Supply, Tony’s has stayed the same ever since anybody can remember, serving the best sausage biscuits in town---arguably in the entire South---for $1.09 apiece, or 2 for $1.79, made from scratch every day by owner Tony Swanger. I like to get mine with mustard on it.

“They’re  going to mess up Hillsborough,” is Donny’s opinion about all the new
and planned development in town. “They’re tearing down woods and running off the deer. It’s driving the country out.”

Lee Price agrees. “You can kill somebody and get away with it if you’ve got enough money,” he says. ‘It ain’t nothing to build something.”