Not quite the inside story


For Charlottesvillians, the words “The Nook” conjure up a constellation of images: Naugahyde bench seats, thick white diner china, burgers under iceberg and pale tomatoes, ketchup in the bottle, minestrone soup, and tables of townies. They’re there for a simple American comfort meal, because more important than eating trendy food is the politics they’re talking, the newspapers they’re reading, and the breaks they’re taking from the work of running this town.

Those are the sorts of associations Gary D. Kessler banks on in his quite original hometown book, On the Downtown Mall.

When you first hear of this book, you figure it’s a visitor’s guide to the Mall that all Charlottesville loves to love. But when you crack it open, it’s not what you expected. First names, dialogues— it’s a book of short stories, some quite deftly written, with a light touch, a sense of humor, and dropped hints that pull the reader in like good gossip. The characters are having coffee at the Mudhouse, or attending a funeral at Hill & Wood, or window-shopping at the Innisfree Gift Shop. You start looking for people you know.

It’s amusing, and yet the book doesn’t quite satisfy. Many of these stories could be set anywhere; it just so happens these take place in Charlottesville. You figure that if Kessler is going to mine local references and lore, maybe he will illuminate how this place really works. How did it happen that, after authorities bricked over Main Street in 1982, built the Omni in 1985, and declared a Mall-wide happy hour every summer Friday, Charlottesville developed a European promenade tradition at its heart, with thousands gravitating to a dozen Downtown blocks, people from 1 to 81, enjoying the air and each other? Kessler does conclude his book with a history of Downtown, but just one paragraph’s devoted to the last 20 years, when Main Street became the Mall.

The book’s debut takes place at the Bullseye Gallery, with a show (one presumes) of photographic representations of the Mall, by the two photographers who contributed to the book (Rick Britton and Stacey Evans) plus Charles Shoffner, Andrew Smith, and Bill Weaver. One only hopes that the quality of prints hung by Bullseye is better than their gray and grainy renditions in the book itself.


Meet Gary D. Kessler,  author of the new book, On the Downtown Mall, and see a show of local photography at the Bullseye Gallery on Friday, March 1, from 6–9pm. 971-7329.