The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, June 16, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Internationalist Bookstore founder remembered fondly decades after his death

Texture courtesy of Adobe Stock

In 1992, the seminal post-punk band Sonic Youth wrote the song “Chapel Hill” as a tribute to a figure considered foundational to the town’s politically progressive scene.

“A bookstore man meets the CIA,” lead singer Thurston Moore declares in the first verse. 

The bookstore man in question was Bob Sheldon, a nurse, political activist, union organizer and the founder of Internationalist Books and Community Center. Founded in 1981, the anarchist infoshop and used-book store started as a small reading room where Zog’s Art Bar & Pool Hall is currently located on Henderson Street. 

Ten years later, the Internationalist had set up shop on Rosemary Street, across from the Skylight Exchange, a record shop and restaurant, in the location that currently houses Mama Dip's Kitchen.

In those 10 years, its owner had garnered a reputation for community organizing in the Triangle. Sheldon lent resources, bulletins and counsel to a variety of local leftist causes, including the student anti-apartheid movement, North Carolina's first Green Party and resistance against CIA recruitment tactics.

When the Gulf War began, Sheldon was an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in Iraq, outlining his explicit anti-war stance in a televised interview with WRAL.

One month later, on Feb. 21, 1991, Sheldon was shot and killed as he closed Internationalist Books for the evening.

The case is still open.

Alvis Dunn, a graduate student in the history department in the early ‘90s, remembers the late activist as an endlessly kind and calm fountain of alternative information.

Dunn first met Sheldon in the Pit. Sheldon, often wearing his distinctive black beret and leather jacket, distributed radical literature and anarchist zines outside Lenoir Dining Hall, all while engaging passersby in conversation about anti-racism, organized labor and geopolitics.

In the same vicinity, Dunn said, Pit preachers lectured students about eternal damnation and brandished Bibles.

Amidst the chaos in the Pit, Dunn said it was Sheldon who remained steadfast in his mission to stimulate open intellectual debates on campus. He kept his cool in contentious discussions, and even if his debate opponent didn't change their mind, the people who were listening often did.

"I think, probably, people learned as much from Bob as they did in any class on campus," he said. 

Around this time, Dunn was a teaching assistant for Professor Don Reid’s class History 140: The World Since 1945. Reid and other faculty members familiar with “Commie Bob,” as he was known affectionately, instructed their students to purchase their textbooks at the Internationalist. 

Andrea Eisen, a social worker who graduated from UNC in 1991, first encountered Sheldon when she was buying a textbook. During her undergraduate years, she frequented the Internationalist to converse with him.

While Eisen did not consider herself a radical, she said she found herself drawn to the shop because of Sheldon’s extraordinary charisma and openness to dialogue.

After his murder, Sheldon's family handed the bookstore over to a board of volunteers. In 1995, the Internationalist moved to Franklin Street and a few years later, Eisen began volunteering and helped organize a vigil for the 15th anniversary of Bob’s death in 2006.

Despite the reverberations of the tragedy, the store stayed open throughout the 2000s, a longevity Eisen attributes to its lasting resonance and support in the community.

“Somebody once left $1,000 in an envelope, taped on our door,” Eisen said.

Michael Pollock, a former customer of the Internationalist, said he was shocked when the store — which moved a final time to Carrboro in 2014 — closed in 2016 due to insurmountable financial difficulties. 

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

He remembers it providing a lending library — today preserved by the Durham People’s Solidarity Hub — and a network of charter buses that would transport community members to national protests in Washington, D.C.

One literature publisher that supplied the Internationalist with material until its closure was CrimethInc, an anarchist network that produces revolutionary texts and multimedia projects. 

In an email, B. Traven from CrimethInc said the Internationalist was an invaluable platform for books and periodicals that engaged with international politics, queer theory, feminism and anti-racism.

“At the time, the internet had not yet become central to how people acquired information,” Traven said in the email. “Internationalist Books played an important role in connecting literature about ideas and current events to social ties via which one could take action.”

Emil Amos, a music journalist and multi-instrumentalist who grew up in Chapel Hill during the late ‘80s, said that Bob Sheldon was a kind of spiritual guiding post for the countercultural groundswell taking place at the time.

"Bob was the most knowledgeable yet calm, grounded sort of anthropologist that was known as guiding context for younger people [in the area]," he said. 

Amos also said that underground musicians, some of whom were not from the area, began to see Sheldon as symbolic of oppression in America. 

Amos said that renowned bassist and Sonic Youth collaborator Mike Watt gave a nod to Sheldon in an appearance at a Cat's Cradle show with the band Firehose.

"Mike Watt basically said on the mic, ‘First they burned the books, and then next, they killed the bookstore owners,'” Amos said.

Indeed, theories swirling around Sheldon’s death saw a possible connection between his anti-war activism and CIA surveillance. A 1991 article in The Village Voice suspected that his death could also be connected with his resistance to right-wing politics and Ku Klux Klan activities in North Carolina. 

For Dunn, the history TA who befriended Sheldon during the late ‘80s, the story of Internationalist Books and its founder is one that — while specific to the pre-internet era — speaks to a progressive political current that has always been present in Chapel Hill.

“I thought that was a beautiful Chapel Hill thing, quite frankly,” Dunn said. “The effort to keep the bookstore alive after Bob passed away, to keep his dream alive."

CORRECTIONA previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mama Dip's is located in the building that previously housed Internationalist Books. The restaurant is in the same place as the bookstore was, but the building for the bookstore was torn down. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.