Sometimes It’s What’s Underneath That Matters Most

Asheville Hotel, Malaprop's Bookstore, Elks LodgeDuring the decade of the 80’s downtown Asheville was a ghost town. I ran a small printing company located in the Miles Building on the corner of Haywood Street and Battery Park, and I’m serious when I say “ghost town”. In those days if you wanted to eat lunch downtown you had only a few choices – the Woolworth’s counter, Tom’s Grill, the Patton Avenue Cigar Store (where you could also play pool in a smoke-filled room with crusty old men), The Mediterranean and the Hot Dog King down on Biltmore Avenue across the street from the porno theater – known then as it is now as The Fine Arts Theater. (Yes, I’m serious)

From our print shop (where Kim’s Wig Store is now) up to the Asheville Public Library there wasn’t one store of any kind on either side of Haywood street – just empty buildings and boarded up or papered over glass windows. No Haywood Park Hotel or Atrium, no Bier Garden or Chocolate Fetish, no Earth Guild and no apartments; no condos. Up the street, closer to the library, there was a gentlemen’s clothing store on one side and O’Henry’s – Asheville’s original gay bar and private club, on the opposite side. Other than that you could just about see the tumbleweed’s blowing down the street.

In the early 80’s I used to park (for free) on the other side of I-240 and walk to our shop on Haywood St. past the Civic Center and Thomas Wolfe auditorium, past the Library and the aforementioned O’Henry’s and down the empty street. On the corner of Haywood St. and Walnut St. (53 – 55 Haywood Street) was an old building with a huge aluminum façade that wrapped around from the front to the side. There wasn’t a “sign” anymore to name the business, but you could see where the letters once hung and protected the aluminum from the weather.

That aluminum façade must have been the coolest thing around when it was installed in the late 50’s or early 60’s. It was put up for a department store called Jack Schulman’s, and it literally towered over the sidewalk and street. By the time I walked under that façade on my way to work, nearly 30 years later, it was one of the ugliest buildings in Asheville. But then, one day, things changed.

A bookstore called Malaprop’s was moving from their original location into this larger space and in preparation that old façade was removed revealing something remarkable. In one afternoon that building went from being one of the worst eyesores in town to one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Asheville.

Originally built by the Elks Lodge #608 it opened on June 14, 1915 (Flag Day) with “great fanfare”. Designed by architects, Smith and Carrier the building boasted a beautiful balcony that extended out over the Haywood Street sidewalk.

I remember being amazed that this Asheville treasure spent decades hidden under someone’s attempt to “spruce it up” and modernize it. It was an attempt to “put a new face” on that “old looking” building. And to my surprise and perhaps others who didn’t know or had forgotten – that aluminum façade was held up by and completely covered one of the most beautiful and unique architectural features in all of downtown Asheville.

It’s been years now since Malaprop’s opened their doors and over the years the empty buildings on both sides of the street have filled with stores and shops as city planners and developers have worked hard to revitalize downtown. There are apartments and condos and office spaces on every floor and the years of emptiness have faded to a vague memory. But, this story reminds me of the façades we build in our own lives. Sometimes our misconceptions and insecurities cause us to want to cover up who we really are (or, more likely, who we “think” we are) and show the world a different face.

We live in a world where everything is visual. It’s about how we look – not necessarily WHO we are. We judge each other on how we “look” on the outside. The house, the car, the clothes, the kids – how we carry ourselves – all of these things seem to matter most. Everything is about looking good and not looking bad. But, going deeper with others and getting beyond the mask is where the real treasure lies. It’s a place where we can help each other; reach each other’s hearts and discuss shared experiences that bring us together in human connections that can’t easily be explained – but are worth “the work” involved to go there. The truth is most of us are afraid of what we’ll find (or others will learn) about ourselves. Our comfort zone doesn’t always include a great deal of honesty, but, the fact is, as we open up and are more honest about who we are – people get to see the real person; the value and wisdom you have; the unique creation that each of us holds within ourselves.

I’ve been meeting with a group of guys for the past year. There are six of us from all walks of life. The idea to meet and really commit to each other came out of the 33 The Series – Authentic Manhood material. At first we had some work to do, and we met every other week – each one telling our story to the group. The thing is that’s just about what it was… a story. Since then and after many hours together, we have gotten to know each other pretty well, moving from what I called the 97% of what we show each other and the world into the 3% of who we really are. It was uncomfortable at first, but after some time we’ve discovered it’s actually easier to just be yourself than to have to strut that other stuff around and keep up the game.

So, we put the façade up thinking we were “improving” what God had already created in an attempt to put “a new face” on what’s there and hide those things we don’t like about ourselves. We’ve found in our journey together that there are benefits when you are really honest. When you let down your guard and show others who you really are, you often get to see yourself through the eyes of others and you uncover and even begin to appreciate those things that make you the unique creation that God intended you to be.

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