by Eric Ginsburg
As he stood by the pool table, stick in hand and partway to an easy victory over me at the back of our old haunt, I could tell Jordan felt uneasy.
It’d been a while since he’d moved away to Oakland, but he stopped in to catch a mutual friend’s book reading downtown on his way to visit family in the Triangle, and after the reading, he wanted to go back to College Hill.
That’s often how I ended up at the appropriately named dive in the Greensboro neighborhood by the same name — a friend would suggest it, and I would somewhat reluctantly agree to join them. To say that I didn’t like College Hill Sundries wouldn’t be fair, unless we’re talking about the atrocious bathrooms back then; my ambivalence or distaste for the venue emanated from overuse.
It’s practically the only place — save for nearby Westerwood, a very similar bar with an overlap in ownership — that I drank for several years after graduating college. Do that anywhere, and you’ll grow weary.
That night Jordan wanted the comfort of home I guess, and I went along. But as we set up a second game of pool, he commented how weird and sort of sad it felt to be there.
I said something like, “Yeah dude, I don’t come here anymore. Nobody does.”
That’s not true, of course, it’s just that I’d aged out.
College Hill is one of the few bars that practically everyone who’s lived here long enough has a story about, but it’s predominated by 21- to 25-year olds and a small legion of lifers. At first, the ability to show up and find friends made College Hill appealing. After a few years of dollar beer nights, it grew tiresome.
But owner Jason Paul — who is a partial owner of Westerwood and Hops Burger Bar — implemented some dramatic changes since Jordan’s visit. Most notably, and to everyone’s delight, the bathrooms aren’t the sort of place where only those who are too drunk to care enter. Paul upgraded them to standard dive status. Bigger than that, College Hill stepped up its craft beer offerings.
The decision proved to be a wise move; Paul said last year was his best yet. But College Hill is still more itself than some newfangled, hipsterized version of what it used to be. This is still the type of bar where Nirvana plays on the juke box, followed soon after by OutKast before switching to Rage Against the Machine, where twentysomethings with Motorhead back patches and old heads with gruff voices sit side by side on the same old barstools.
Last week, College Hill held its first tap takeover event, and considering the strong turnout, it could be seen as a harbinger of what’s to come.
It’s been years since I really hung out at College Hill, but though I feel like I aged out, I still fit right in at the Wicked Weed tap takeover.
I expected I might not know anyone, and brought my friend Carrie to come and try the $3.50 12-ounce drafts served in plastic cups. (The bar also sold cheaper seven-ounce pours and stocked 18 big Wicked Weed bottles, but we stuck to the drafts including a personal favorite Tropic Most Gose, a maple syrup-flavored French Toast Stout and the sour Bourbon Barrel Oblivion.)
But I knew the first person I made eye contact with, the tattooed bartender also named Carrie, because she works at Mellow Mushroom. And, not too surprisingly, the city’s beer nerds showed up in force, including Kate who now runs Bestway’s beer wall, Matt from RH Barringer, Charles over at Melt’s bar and Walt from the homebrew club. Above them all stood Andy Sharpe, an old classmate of mine from Guilford College who some of you would recognize from his days at Hops. These days Sharpe works for Wicked Weed — he moved back to Asheville, but his sales territory covers the Triad, among other parts of the state, and he set the event up with Paul months ago.
I didn’t used to drink with any of these folks here back in my College Hill years, and I don’t think Carrie ever served me here either. But though I’m not about to come back regularly, visiting the bar did elicit the notion of a homecoming, and seeing familiar faces in a different setting reminded me that College Hill’s scope is much bigger now than I give it credit for.
The bar isn’t transitioning into a new phase as much as it’s growing up a little, personality in tact. Jason Paul, who’s grown a beard that looks more outdoorsman than hip, stood up from sitting with Charles and me at a booth to snatch what looked like a narrow knitting needle out of a young punk’s hand. She’d been using it to scratch something into the wall, as many had before her. Without a word Paul took the tool, walked back to our table and resumed talking.
A few moments passed, and as we finished our conversation he rose again, strode back to the corner booth and handed back the sharpened piece of metal with a shrug.
It isn’t that the riff raff don’t belong here anymore. It’s more that we can have our dive, and care for it, too.
OMG, have you srsly never been to College Hill Sundries? Well, it’s at 900 Spring Garden St. (GSO) or on Facebook.