The Other Columbus: How to make a city yours

Scott Woods
Columbus skyline

Six places.


I do not gamble much. I have addictive tendencies, so I try to keep my vices to a minimum. A little Keno if I happen to be in a Roosters with some cash on me is about all I manage anymore. If I opt to pick up a baker’s dozen from the family owned dough-slinging shop on my way to work, I have to do different math. I can play Keno at 7 in the morning while waiting on a sausage and cheese sandwich, reminiscing with sleepless customers about the old album covers plastered over all the walls. You can’t even find a place like that on campus anymore, where records used to roam free. On this side of town, it isn’t an aesthetic wrought from playful irony. It is a proper shrine, and its gods are still real to us.


A woman celebrating her birthday with dollars pinned to her shirt walked into the neighborhood carry-out, an investment matched by patrons of the store, random dollar bills given in celebration. It is easy to think such a ritual might be a hustle, but that's not how these places work. You don't run game in the carry-out. The parking lot, yes. The alley behind, perhaps. But inside? No. You need too much of what it offers too often. We celebrated her birthday earnestly for a weekday morning, between the lotto ticket bank and the candy rack, wishing a better day for her into existence. This is a place where paying it forward beyond the always empty penny cup is viewed with great suspicion. By contrast, this custom is understood to be safe and true.

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There is a library that doesn't care about trends or what people want, so much as what people may ever want, and conversely keeps everything. Before heading out on a road trip I stop there for impossible to find CDs and actual audiobooks. The books that make up its collection are sometimes torn or ragged on the edges, spines threading out like whiskers. The books may not be remembered, but their knowledge remains, which is what I really want and sometimes what I need. It is a library that does not win awards, save for my heart, which in that building is understood to be prize enough.


The vegetable shack built off of a trailer where the owner will make you coffee if you have five minutes to wait, and a bacon sandwich once she really knows you. You are always “honey” there, and even when she does not remember your name, you are never a stranger.


The restaurant that treats me like family when I come in no matter how long I have been away, that knows my name, that knows the way I like my dishes prepared. It is an abode where I can order off menu by taste alone. Desire something based on only one or two ingredients, and a dish appears. It is not a substitution; it is whole magic. They keep my spells locked away in my bartender’s head for when I come home.


The primeval record store that is not retro; just ancient. You can smell the value of its contents dropping upon entry. It is a curated collection that happens to open to the public, that does not believe in new vinyl, that has nothing in plastic, that has no price tags. Each record sold there is from the gut.


It is not uncommon these days to read an article touting Columbus as a fine place to live. These articles are largely advertisements, seemingly written by people who don't live here. Or, if the authors do live here, it is not really here, so much as an outskirt or enclave from which they rarely extricate themselves. Faux-ads wanting to convince potential residents that Columbus is what they say it is, but only what they say it is. That Ohio’s capitol municipality is always shining and accessible.

These articles are laughable, but I understand why they exist. Cities are not just places but businesses, and if the currency of your city is measured in dollars then Columbus is booming for some of us. While preserving history isn’t Columbus’ strong suit, it is not without its indestructible places. Places of power not ruined by popularity. Places that feel like home.

These places are part of the Columbus in which I live. They are sometimes the Columbus places in which people I do not agree with also live. Sometimes we live in the same spaces but different dimensions of it, ghost citizens passing in the disdain of a shared residence. But usually they appear like Brigadoon to the curious few who seek them. I would tell you the names of my six places of power but Hip Columbus would show up and ruin them. So I tell you what they are as experiences, not sold but lived. It is the best kind of gift. It is the gift that allows you to not only find them (which is easy), but to define them for yourself.