The art of soul searching: Where to discover yourself in Charleston

“But as the days go by, in this gray world outside, days grow on colorful trees…in my secret place. In my secret place.”  The lyrics, enveloped by the DIY drums and synths, swirl upon me as I write this. A warm crackle underlies it all; the popping draws my gaze toward the spinning record on my dresser. As I watch it go around and around, I slip into the usual deep thoughts and soul searching. I want to emphasize the word “usual,” because this type of soul searching is something that not only I am used to, but everyone in our generation. This is because we are the generation that has to invent its own jobs, rely less on our degrees and depend more on our creativity. The act of soul searching is one of the most important ingredients (along with dedication and work) in our unique recipe for self-fulfillment.

What I am here to tell you is that, when you find yourself dreaming of what is to come, you are not alone. Our community at the College is full of dreamers brimming with creativity. And even better than that, there are some distinct places in Charleston that are perfectly conducive to our soul searching. As the song I am listening to ends, The Magnetic Fields croon “In my secret place…” over and over. Though these places are no secret of mine, they are full of “days growing on colorful trees” — just waiting for you to discover.

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While you may walk into The Vinyl Countdown solely to peruse or purchase records, you will return for the experience. (Photo by Katie Carter)

The Vinyl Countdown, 724 King Street

Sound is fluid and forever changing. We will never hear the exact same combinations of noises twice. Perhaps this ephemeral nature of sound is the subconscious phenomenon that attracts us to vinyl music. Vinyl is a form that embraces every imperfect crackle and pop, allowing us to recognize the uniqueness of each moment. But whether it is because of the emphasized transitory qualities, the physical sensation of holding a record or the stimulating artwork, there is no denying the resurging interest in vinyl music. It is this interest that has made possible the presence of our very own downtown Charleston record store, The Vinyl Countdown.

While you may walk into The Vinyl Countdown solely to peruse or purchase records, you will return for the experience. “I love it when someone comes in, picks up a record that I adore and asks me about it,” owner Aaron Levy said. “For instance, if someone ever approaches me with a Joni Mitchell album, I can give all the backstory about it, explain what was going on in her life when she wrote it and how that affected her music.” These are the kinds of interactions the employees of the store love, and while each of their tastes are displayed on the “Employee’s Pick” wall, Levy is cultivating an ambiance conducive to conversation among all who enter. “One of my favorite moments of having the store was the grand opening. There were tons of people in here, and they were all discussing music, putting records on our state-of-the-art listening station and growing in their tastes,” he recalled.

Levy’s primary goal is to create a place that gives back to the community in unique ways, whether by providing a gathering place for music lovers to converse and grow, or even by donating to a different local charity each month. Toward the end of our conversation, Levy looked at me and said, “You know, one of my favorite songwriters, Ryan Adams, once said in an interview, ‘I have no interest in making a killing, I just want to make a living. The rest I can give back.’” This is the philosophy on which he has built The Vinyl Countdown.

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The idea of the Terrace is to be a theater that provides movies that are creative and important, and make them directly available to an audience. (Photo by Katie Carter)

Terrace Theater, 1956 D Maybank Highway

Perhaps cinema’s greatest aspect is its capacity to provide diegetic absorption; no other medium of art is as great at creating worlds in which we are able to lose ourselves so completely while experiencing a story. This is incredibly important, because when we are captivated by a story, we are able to feel its atmosphere, characters and emotions. To feel these things is to understand the completeness of another’s experiences, and shared experiences are the foundation of the humanity in our souls.

The world of cinema abounds with films that capture the things that make life rich, but the average movie goer is only able to scratch the surface of what is out there. Paul Brown, owner of the Terrace Theater, is here to change that reality. Once an independent filmmaker himself, he said, “This is a place where movies like I made can be seen. The idea of the Terrace is to be a theater that provides movies that are creative and important, and make them directly available to an audience.”

Brown went on to praise the community for making this possible. “Charleston is an ideal town in supporting independence. If you walk down Main St. of most cities in America, you see box store after box store. But when you walk down King St., you see that Charleston rejects this idea and supports independent businesses.” He continued to say that the Terrace Theater is the anti-upsell of big business: “Just like any jewelry store, flower shop or local restaurant, we get to pick and choose what we provide to people.”

This fine tuned curation, combined with the wonderful stories told on screen, are what give the Terrace such a unique, incredible culture. It is this careful combination which affords anyone who enters the ability to experience joy, pain, peace, regret, excitement and hope all in a few hours. There are very few places in this world that can offer something as satisfying to the soul as that, and we are lucky enough to have one in the Terrace Theater.

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“It’s not your normal bar scene,” Newman said. “We don’t really have the dating game or the alpha dog fights happening.” (Photo by Wesley Vance)

Upper Deck Tavern, 353 King Street

The reason you venture into The Vinyl Countdown or the Terrace Theater is because, on some basic level, you desire the connection that art offers. This connection reminds you of your human nature. But while experiencing art is fulfilling, the purest form of human connection comes from face-to-face interaction. To have an actual conversation with someone is what spurs the most profound growth of the soul. And for that, there is the Upper Deck Tavern.

Ken Newman, the owner of the Upper Deck Tavern, told me about a coffee shop he would visit in high school in the 1960s called the No Exit Café.  “It was this hole in the wall in the middle of a nice Jewish community in Chicago. It had black floors, black walls, a black ceiling…black everything. People would go in there to smoke and drink coffee. The first time I wandered in, no one asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ because everyone in there was wandering. Back in the ‘60s we called that having an existential crisis, it’s the same thing as what you’re calling soul searching now. No one in the No Exit Café ever challenged me, but what they did was let me challenge myself.” He said this is the type of atmosphere he has allowed to cultivate in his bar. “The people who come in here are all working on something. Whether it’s music, a film, a novel or even construction, they all have these creative ideas in their heads and they come here to sort them out.”

“It’s not your normal bar scene,” he said. “We don’t really have the dating game or the alpha dog fights happening. Instead, it’s the type of place where you can come in and ask somebody, ‘What are you working on?’” He said that genuinely asking someone a question like this helps you to truly connect with him or her, and that, “You become a better person when you are connected.”

Newman gives a lot of credit to his staff for creating a place that truly promotes human interaction. “You call them bartenders, I call them producers. That’s because they own and produce their own nights. They create relationships with the people that come in and construct the setting to fit the scene,” Newman said.

“We don’t have any ownership of how it’s supposed to feel in here, we just feel you.” This is the attitude that actualizes such a malleable venue, all in order to make you feel as comfortable as possible in putting yourself out there to connect. Human connection is the truly authentic experience in life, and for this to happen, the Upper Deck Tavern provides an equally authentic place.

Soul searching is a grand and necessary task that feeds our creativity and guides us to purpose. We wander in our quest for fulfillment, hoping to find places where it is possible to reflect and grow in humanity and connection. We find humanity and connection in everything from art to conversation. And, sometimes, we get lucky and stumble upon places so rich in authenticity that we must stop and let it sink in. What I am suggesting is that the three places I have mentioned – The Vinyl Countdown, the Terrace Theater and the Upper Deck Tavern – all offer precisely this feeling.  The feeling of discovering, at least in part, your soul. So whether you hope to discover your soul within the lyrics buried deep inside of a melody, in the humanity of a poignant story told visually or simply in the conversation that connects all of these things, maybe one of these places will help you along the way.

*This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Yard.

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Bradley Harrison is a senior at College of Charleston. After a long and painful stint as an engineering student at a university in Georgia which you probably have never heard of, he has decided to come back home to his native Charleston and study Spanish and Education. As a keen observer of pop culture, he loves art house cinema, Pitchfork.com, and the Ringer. FOH Army for life.


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