How I got into the business of writing

For those interested, this is a column I wrote a few years ago for the Burlington Times-News describing how I became attracted to the business of writing and journalism. Call it the smell of ink, the lure of air-conditioning and the taste of Coca-Cola. I’ll post archive columns from more than 30 years of newspaper work periodically.

A sign out front announced in an old English style of type what business was inside the block building situated between some historic homes and a former hotel converted to apartments. “The Danbury Reporter,” it stated.

But everybody just called it “The Printin’ Office.”

The one-story structure with a bank of windows along the front and a flat roof, quietly stood there, sort of an ugly spot seemingly out of place in the mountain town that was a seat of government, some tourism, tobacco farms and not much of anything else to speak of except jaw-dropping landscapes and quiet, only punctuated by the occasional crowing rooster, the volunteer fire department siren, bands of barking dogs or the squeals of a goat the proprietor of the nearby apartments purchased because some folks in town painted it red and sold it to him while he was drunk.

Such was life in Danbury, N.C. circa 1970 and 1971. That’s where I grew up, by the way.

It’s also where I got my start in the newspaper business — there in that old “Printin’ Office.”

NOW HOW I came to be a newspaper writer at age 11, going on 12 is probably not that unusual considering the circumstances. It was summer, for one thing. By any standard there’s not a whole lot to do for a kid that age in a town where the population is about 175 and it wasn’t time to prime tobacco yet. If we didn’t have a ride to Hanging Rock State Park, three miles away and directly uphill, our options were limited to playing sandlot baseball, stealing samples from the icehouse, finding places with an air-conditioner or annoying grownups until one would finally agree to haul us to the lake at Hanging Rock.

It was one of those missions to find air-conditioning that first led me to the “Printin’ Office.” I had to be pretty hot at the time to do it. After all, the “Printin’ Office” didn’t appear very welcoming. I knew that on weekdays serious work was done there. We were a newspaper-reading family after all so I was vaguely familiar with it. I was also aware that on weekends, men went there to play cards and perhaps have a drink or two.

So it wasn’t the kind of place an 11-year-old kid could just walk in and say, “hey y’all!”

I quietly entered that first time so as not to call too much attention to myself.  I was overpowered by the stench inside, an odor I now recognize as ink. The interior was a wreck featuring random collisions of old newspapers, filing cabinets, page layout sheets, border tape, glue bottles, books, typewriters and ashtrays. The concrete floor was permanently stained with a mixture of cigarette ashes, coffee, bourbon and, of course, ink. It was a five-person operation. Three of them were descendants of the newspaper’s founders. They produced The Danbury Reporter and the Stokes Record each week. The publications were exactly the same, except the name plate was changed sometime during the press run to induce people in neighboring Walnut Cove to buy the paper.

And just inside the door, an old drink machine sold Cokes for 10 cents — when they were a quarter down the street at the store.

I was home.

I’M STILL NOT sure how I struck the original deal with editor Paris Pepper that started my journalism career. I just know he let me do it. Perhaps the fact that I was willing to work cheap had something to do with it. Free was, and still is, the magic word in the newspaper business.

Paris was a bit older than my dad — married to one of my father’s cousins. His granddaddy founded the paper and it was passed down generation to generation. It was his turn. Two of his sisters helped run the business. Paris handled the editorial copy.

I knew him, but not well. Really, how much does any kid know about a grownup who’s not under the same roof? He had a paunch. Most men of his age did back then. He shaved every day, but still always looked as if he needed one. He didn’t say much, but I got the idea he could be gruff when he did.

So it probably took some guts to approach him that first time with my account of a Little League baseball game penned in barely legible cursive on paper from a legal pad. Don’t know how I managed to do it, but I wound up in his office. I remember watching him read it with a combination of dread and excitement. He looked over the yellow paper at me and nodded. He would be happy to run it. As I turned to leave his office he said one more thing.

“If you keep writing ‘em, I’ll keep running ‘em.”

Who needed pay after that?

The next edition, I had my first newspaper byline. Even after all these years, I’m still stoked when it happens. Good as his word, I continued to write off and on for The Danbury Reporter until I left for college. Eventually a new editor, Jerry Moore, took over after Paris passed away suddenly and far too young at age 52. He sent me to cover court, county commissioners and other assorted things. I was 16.

Today, the Danbury Reporter and Stokes Record are one publication — the Stokes News. It moved the office to Walnut Cove. It doesn’t seem quite the same, even though in most ways it really is.

The building that once housed the old “Printin’ Office” is still there. A succession of restaurants have tried and failed at the site over the past few years. Last time I stopped by was on my honeymoon in 1997. I bought a foot-long hot dog there. A Coke, by the way, cost far more than 10 cents that day.

But the faint odor of ink was still in the air.

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