Michael is the program coordinator for the University of Montevallo's philosophy program, and his wife Cheryl is the president of the chamber of commerce. Together, they own Eclipse Coffee and Books, a beloved hangout spot for students and locals alike.
Ending up in Montevallo
Cheryl: "There’s many stories to tell, and it’s a long journey… but when he asked me to marry him, I asked him, what are your goals? Where do you want to be, what is the outcome, where do you want to get to? He said, 'well, I want to teach at a small liberal arts college in the South'. He said, 'ideally, I’d like to be in a place where I could start my own philosophy program'. I said, 'well, I come from a big city, so can we at least be close to a big city?' So in some sense, I don’t know that we could have sketched it out better than ending up here. We did a lot between that conversation and here, but this is where we ended up. When we got here it was like, yeah, this is what we wanted."
Michael: "I had six years of one-year jobs and Cheryl kept moving and interrupting her career over and over again. She got a master’s in social work at Syracuse while I was getting the PhD and I was ready to just quit. I spent too much time trying to find permanent employment. This job came in really late in the hiring stage and I had almost forgotten about it. I was frantically waving to Cheryl from the landline phone, like ‘bring me my applications! I have to pretend like I know what Montevallo is!’ So she brought the files and it turned out to be a great decision."
On the university
Michael: " I see first-generation college students who come in with prejudices. I’m not going to slam the South for this because I grew up in South Carolina, and it’s less in the current generation, but there’s a really strong prejudice against homosexuals. It’s easy. There are kids that are the first generation in their family to go to college and they’re sitting right next to someone with tattoos and piercings who are clearly “different”, but after a semester of sitting next to and talking to these fellow students, they can’t hold onto their biases and prejudices as much. [The university] is at its best when it brings people together to force those preconceptions out of their minds. Almost every student is glad to be here because they’re really blazing a trail in their family, or because they felt like it’s the only place they can comfortably go in Alabama, or because they were drawn to the strength of the fine arts program or one of the other programs. I find that awesome. I think that’s what Cheryl’s recreated here [at Eclipse]. She really runs and dreamed up and made this whole place and she realized she can’t get by on just the students- we need to get by on all segments of society. We have knitting groups and we have men’s Christian groups in the morning and we have the townies and we have the students and it’s the same sort of forced exposure to different people."
The story behind Eclipse
Cheryl: "We were at Barnstormer’s next door and we saw the little 'for sale' sign. It was seriously one of those garage sale 'for sale' signs. It was a big overgrown lot- I went and told Michael that the land next door is for sale, and he said, 'there’s no land next door'! So we called the number and the guy’s daughter answered and said he was in the hospital and we should call him while he was in the hospital. We were like… ummm, not gonna call. We’ll wait a few weeks."
Michael: "So we waited and finally I called him in the hospital. He said, ‘I’m recovering from a heart attack! Why are you calling me? Call my daughter!’ And hung up on me."
Cheryl: "In the meantime, I had found out where they lived. I noticed one day that they were having a garage sale, so I said let’s go there!"
Michael: "She totally played me. She did not tell me this."
Cheryl: "So we’re driving up and I said, 'by the way, these people own the land that we want to buy'. We get there and he’s on the porch and has an oxygen tank like he clearly just got out of the hospital."
Michael: "She said to go talk to him and I said no, so we’re backing out of the driveway after we looked over the yard sale and went, alright, yes. We pulled back in, went up to talk to him, and I talked to him for quite a long time about nothing. Then I said, 'really, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m the one that bothered you about the land when you were in the hospital'. And he said, 'you know what? That was you? I like you. I think I’ll sell you that land. A lot of people want it, but I like you, you were nice'. So we got the land at a yard sale."
The beginnings of Eclipse
Cheryl: "And then the building… we were at a party and [the host] was renting this house out of Salem Road. It was a huge piece of property they were renting, and he said, 'there’s this neat little house out here that’s been abandoned', so he walks me out here. It was the first four rooms here just sitting there, and apparently the man who’d built it had died ten years before that point. He built this house and had gone down to New Orleans and gotten the stained glass and carved doors. He’d built it and hadn’t finished it. When we saw it, there were no floors, but I looked at it and said, this is my bookstore. His family was at that point living in Washington or Oregon and we got in touch with them… within a couple days we had bought it and arranged to have it moved."
Michael: "The dining and kitchen area was a pro shop for a put-put course that was on this land. I still have a bag of multicolored golf balls that we took out of the 19th hole when we were cleaning it out."
On becoming part of the community
Cheryl: “I think Montevallo is hard on businesses. They’re skeptical because they’ve seen so many places come and go. In my experience, we opened September 24th, 2001, which was two weeks after 9/11 and a horrible time to open a business. Nobody in the world was interested in coming out. Business was really rough that fall and Christmas and we hung in there, and then spring I went into the garden and started planting stuff. People started showing up because I think they thought, ‘oh, she’s putting in flowers, she’s gonna stick around’. The next summer we started serving alcohol.”
Michael: “That cost us a fair number of customers! There were some baptists that said ‘we’re never going to come in here’, and I said to one that had been a regular client, ‘you don’t have to drink it just because we sell it’. But no- that was a line in the sand. When Barnstormer’s lost their lease, there wasn’t a place to get a beer on this side of Main Street. But of course we got a lot of push-back because we’re non-smoking, so we had to say, 'there’s a porch! Smoke on the porch!' But finally people warmed up to us. At first some of it was adaptation because there was no other place in town, but then I think it’s because they liked us. They became regulars."
Cheryl: "I think we tried to make a decision in terms of the menu to put Southern favorites on there, like pimiento cheese. There’s a certain clientele that, when they come in and see pimiento cheese on the menu, they know they’re welcome. But we also try to do edgier stuff… again, lattes or quinoa. I think our menu is code for a lot of different groups that they’re welcome, in terms that they see stuff that they recognize or that appeals to them."
Michael: "We had a customer that wouldn’t let one of our first employees, a very flamboyant employee with an eyebrow piercing and a lip piercing and painted nails, hand him a beer. He kept saying, 'it’s unsanitary, he's got these piercings'. That’s how it started. But this person is here every afternoon, and Trent was the afternoon counter guy. By the first Thanksgiving, he asked Trent to come to his house for Thanksgiving. It went from 'someone else has to get me that beer', to suddenly, 'come to our house for Thanksgiving dinner because you’re not going to go home'. Even if this place burned down, that one event would have made it all worth it. That’s the story that chokes me up."
What makes Montevallo unique
Michael: "One thing that’s really unique that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t married someone who became a social worker is that the assisted living housing is right on Main Street, one block away from us. Usually they’re hidden in communities- the poor people are hidden away from the centers of commerce. Montevallo is awesome and fairly unique in my experience for being like, no, there they are. Between the elementary school and the high school right on Main Street, that’s where we’re helping people that need help with housing. That’s sort of the kind soul of Montevallo, whether it was by accident or not, no one is pushing to say let’s re-house these people somewhere else and re-claim this valuable Main Street real estate. They just don’t."
Cheryl: "That’s another thing that I would say is actually unique. A lot of people think there are certain things that are unique about this community that aren’t.
Michael: "But that’s everywhere! Everyone thinks the weather is unique where they are. It’s just not."
Cheryl: "One thing that I think that is unique here is that you’ve got a narrower socioeconomic group. You do not have, in this community, very many people that are really really wealthy. That’s kind of nice. I think you’ve got some richer people, and it's partly because Alabama’s a poor state and we’re small, but you don’t have the people with a lot of money. You have more diversity in terms of interaction between socioeconomic groups."
Life in Alabama
Cheryl: "Compared to the rest of Alabama, we are diverse, we are liberal, we are quirky… and it’s a of fun. If there was any place I’d want to live in in Alabama, it would only be here. You go bigger, outside of Alabama, and you go, yeah, there are challenges here. There are challenges to living in Alabama. There are challenges to how conservative and insulated and isolated it all is. On some days it’s awesome, but on other days… well, I am in the deep South. There’s this tension here for me in terms that there are days I love it and I’m proud to be here and I think it’s fabulous, but then there are days where I think, 'oh geez, I’m in Alabama'! As a liberal, and having lived other places, it’s tough."
Cheryl: "I really don’t think Montevallo gives itself enough credit."
Michael: "The students have this sort of shame about where they are, and the state has it… it’s inculcated at many different levels. The students that really like me will find me and blurt out, ‘why are you here? Couldn’t you get a better job?’ Well, yeah. I have a friend teaching at Georgetown that’s basically running the department. I have friends all over the place, teaching at Yale and Harvard… we all went to the same grad program, we all went by the same books, we’re all teaching the same things in our classes. One of them said, 'well, why does Harvard cost so much more?' More people have heard of it!
A guy a year behind me in grad school had a chair at Oxford that John Locke, one of the most famous philosophers in the history of the world, also had. He came Tuscaloosa to go talk and drove over here to surprise me. We sat on the tailgate of my truck and he asked me to talk about what Montevallo is like and he went, 'wow'. He said, ‘are you happy here?’ I said, ‘yeah’. He said, ‘I haven’t been happy a day in my life at my job at Oxford.’ It was mind-blowing to me. He’s one of these people that only does research and teaches one class a year. He gets no joy out of it and doesn’t feel like he’s doing anyone any good. Here, I teach mainly lower level classes, but I like that. That’s the fun- getting people interested in philosophy.
I wish people would be proud of Montevallo in the state and in the classroom. I had this whole class turn sideways once saying, 'I’m going to transfer [to another local college]'. I said, why? The curriculum is the same or worse, and the professors are at best the same. He said, ‘well, Montevallo is just... Montevallo.’ It’s easy to think that anywhere, but look around- you’re not gonna get this experience many other places. There’s plenty of other small public and private liberal arts schools. I’m not saying this is unique in the universe. But it’s certainly unique in Alabama, and it’s something you can’t notice when you’re in the middle of it. I wish I could make people notice that."