I wanted to get a sense of the place, so I pulled up to Small World Books about 40 minutes before the concert was supposed to start.
I hustled out of the cold into a small corridor, greeted by two men who work there. I was confused — there were no books — but one of the men told me the actual bookstore was through a door to my right. After dropping $5 into the donation can for the performers, I opened the old door to the bookshop. A book club was in session.
The walls were lined with novels, encyclopedias, atlases, albums, old toys, and knick-knacks. All these things seemed to find their home here, refuge from the wilds of time and space. Though thousands of items were tucked closely together, they fit in their spot. The place felt sacred, vulnerable, because of this.
I moved carefully, not wanting to desecrate the shop’s delicate spirit. After thumbing through an old edition of “Moby Dick” I had found in a corner of the shop, I noticed a small child, even quieter than me, reading in a tiny chair. I found a plastic pipe whose paint had worn off. The chamber for tobacco was Fred Flintstone’s head.
Once the book club finished and organized the chair circle into four small rows, I sat on a woven wood chair in the back. The opening act, who goes by Lung Cycles, set up his equipment. It was quick — his weapons of choice were an amplifier, a tape recorder, and a classical guitar he’d borrowed from the shop’s owners. The only sources of light in the room were white Christmas lights draped over a bookshelf behind the makeshift stage, and a few lamps to their right.
The room fell silent, and when Lung Cycles began to play, a wave of calm filled the room. His songs were intimate, and I couldn’t extrapolate their meanings by lyrics alone, but his tender voice, and the clarity of his hand-picked guitar explained everything.
His tape recorder spouted lo-fi ambient loops, the type of sounds you can hear when remembering a distant memory or dream, a fitting companion to his guitar and voice. He played four songs, and named only one of them, but this one was my favorite: an instrumental piece, “The Hottest Day of The Year So Far.”He fingerpicked a beautiful melody backed by ambient sounds of summer.
The sound of crickets chirping began, and I closed my eyes so I could listen more clearly. I was home on my porch on an August evening in 2017, holding my dog who died two years later, wondering if the girl I loved would love me back in the coming school year. She didn’t, but the song still made me smile.
Next, Sinai Vessel took the stage. Even though the project usually functions as a three-piece rock band, Caleb Cordes — the project’s front-man, vocalist, and founder — played alone. Cordes began his set using the same classical guitar as Lung Cycles, but his songs had stronger rock influences. He has a gorgeous, rangy voice, and adjusted the cadence and volume of his guitar playing to fit the emotional tone of his songs. The sound of his voice, his guitar playing, and his lyrics painted clear pictures of his life’s struggles.
One song described him as a misfit growing up in the Christian South because of his sexuality, another about his struggles with tinnitus. Halfway through his set he switched to a bass guitar, and backed himself up with ambient tape loops like Lung Cycles.
As he was setting up his bass I noticed a black cat walking under the chairs in front of me, and thought for a moment I was in a dream. I didn’t expect the bass to compliment his voice due to its deep tone and lack of flexibility for melody, but it gave the second half of his setlist a dark, earthy feeling that fit his style.
Advance Base’s setup was a keyboard organ decked out in samplers, filters, and drum machines. As he started playing, the bright sound of his organ flared, which he then began to manipulate and loop using filters. This created a vibrant and psychedelic sound that took me by surprise. His voice didn’t have a great range, but it was warm and tender, like an old friend’s. His songs detailed memories of relationships, and people he seemed to hold dear.
Though the songs were melancholic, Base’s psychedelic organ gave them a sweet flavor. One song, called “Calloused Fingers Won’t Make You Strong, Edith Wong,” was my favorite. In it, Advanced Base expressed his concern for a woman who copes with her life’s pain by playing music, but it was clear that Base knew music wasn’t truly fulfilling her. He also covered a song by indie-hero Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, “You and Me and The Moon.” After about nine songs, Advance Base finished his set.
Once the concert was over, I found that copy of “Moby Dick,” as well as a beautiful copy of “Don Quixote,” and bought them at the shop’s counter. After thanking the workers there I left the shop. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night.