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Sam's Kwik Shop - Durham's iconic booze store

The Wednesday I sauntered into Sam’s Kwik Shop off Erwin was a slow evening, one of those peculiar nights that are particular to North Carolina. The Indian summer that had scorched Durham and simmers even now was dampened by a soft rain, as comforting as the cold sheet you blindly feel for in the sweaty flash of a stale Southern night. As far back as my freshman year when I first groaned under the unbearable heat of Durham in August and into September, waking up with my bangs matted to my forehead and my cotton drawers clinging to my legs, I have taken refuge in Bostock or one of the empty academic buildings strewn around West Campus, nodding off as the guttural hum of the air conditioning quieted the suffocating chirps of cicadas just outside the thick-paned glass windows overlooking the main quad.

And when there were no essays to be read or problem sets to tend to, I’d put back a few of the cold Yuenglings I had picked up at the BP at the corner of Main and Ninth Street, doing anything to push the thought of the ever-rising thermometer out of mind. That was all until I happened across Sam’s – an outpost in the wild west of Durham, just beyond the stone walls of campus. I was once wary of its location on the outskirts of Central and the barren lot of abandoned gasoline stands adjacent to its own, but since “discovering” it, have found it more welcoming than anywhere else around, especially on those sweltering evenings.

Walk in through the aluminum-framed doors of Sam’s and you walk off a rickety porch into a charmingly decrepit house in the thick of rural North Carolina, the Carolina you only find if you are brave enough to turn off your navigation and follow the back roads deep into the countryside, or happen to take a wrong turn off of Academy Road. In the opening of the concrete forest flanked by telephone poles rather than Dogwoods, the shack in the shadow of the bridge burdened with the train tracks has become the off-campus general store for students. Once more commonly known as Blue Light, Sam’s long ago cozied its way into the Duke community, more synonymous to a neighborhood shop than Uncle Harry’s or the Lobby Shop in the BC.

I figure my way past the snacks and groceries in front and drift off into the stretch of refrigerators stock full of nearly every imaginable brewery, a library of travel guides to tastes from all of the different regions of the world, from the far corners of the states and beyond to the monasteries of Belgium (Chimay) or rice fields of Japan (Hitachino). Overwhelming the first time and much the same now, I’ve spent upwards of an hour walking and re-walking the rows, mulling over the strange names of foreign flavors, ‘til I instinctively grab for a six pack. Bar-b-que, in his jean vest and donning his signature wiry beard, is stocking the shelves, having just grappled with the first rush of the night, an overflow of hospital employees in between shifts at 6:30. I wander back to the front where I sit next to Nate, one of the long-time employees who has become a part of the character and personality of Sam’s. There isn’t the hustle and bustle of a Friday night, and in that I’m allowed to sink into the atmosphere.

I am oddly comfortable sitting on the bench near the magazine rack, the organized clutter of neon and wooden beer signs, an Old Milwaukee lamp that would be better lighting a billiards hall, and a dusty bottle of Dom Perignon with a congratulatory note for graduates brings to my ear the soft whisper of my nana’s voice as I would rummage through the museum she kept tucked away in the corners of the basement below her duplex. An old gnome holds his high position on top of the wine cooler, peering unabashedly at customers as they make their way past the counter and Bar-b-que, hunched over the latest issue of National Geographic, back from a quick smoke he snagged after taking the trash out.

The molasses of Nate’s unaccented Carolinian drawl pours over me, as he lends his attention to the News and Observer, but only momentarily, as the opening of the door pulls his gaze up and he offers a familiar greeting to the nursing school student dressed in Duke blue scrubs or the recently engaged regular in for a couple bottles of stout to keep him company on the front porch of the house he shares with his wife-to-be. Nate leans towards me and nods toward the former, explaining that he was a chef before deciding to study medicine, exuding the pride of an uncle or old friend. Which he is to many of the customers that duck in from the storm brewing overhead.

Though, he, himself, doesn’t drink, Nate has tended to the counter of this beer haven for over six years, bantering back and forth with students and locals alike, establishing relationships with regulars through the years.

“I guess that’s why I’ve been here so long,” Nate says, referring to the come-and-go friendships.

And that is why everyone has been coming back for so long. The almost inexplicable familiarity of Sam’s has captured the attention of those in need of a distraction from their responsibilities, a welcomed detour on the long, arduous road of life. I had a rough week ahead of me – schoolwork piled on my desk, voicemails and e-mails and snail mail to respond to, and a hamper tipping over with dirty laundry. But, even if only for the relaxation of a few hours, all of that stress was forgotten as I kicked back with Nate and Bar-b-que, listening to the heavy breathing of the refrigerators and the rain pattering down on the roof, letting Sam’s soak in.


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