I used to work in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Back in the day it was the Haight-Ashbury of Greater Cleveland, and when I worked there from 2003-2005 there was still a hippy vibe. Hipsters and snobby people from the surrounding cities were slowly invading Coventry, but it still had a groovy, chill atmosphere. The businesses in Coventry supported each other, the people who lived in and around the neighborhood were happy to stay put; Coventry is not far from downtown Cleveland, yet it’s not near any freeways that make it easily accessible. I think the people who live and play in Coventry like it that way.
When I was first hired at High Tide Rock Bottom, one of the anchor stores that made Coventry Coventry, I was put in charge of the t-shirts. We ordered from a few companies and usually got the exact same styles in the exact same sizes. In addition to the 150+ Dragonball shirts that were collecting dust in the upstairs storage area, we sold black shirts with funny sayings on them, Beatles shirts, and Bob Marley shirts. For a while I reordered the shirts as instructed, but when I started browsing through catalogues I saw potential for some other stuff that I knew would sell really well. As much as I fucking hate retail, I am exceptionally good at picking items to carry, and I’m awesome at merchandising them. (Eventually, I was the buyer/merchandiser for 75% of the store’s inventory.) I ordered a few extra things just to see how they would sell. I probably didn’t ask the owner if that would be okay, because I like to just do things, prove that I am good at them, and then say, “I hope you don’t mind that I did that.”
The stuff I ordered sold really well. So I reordered it and ordered a few more new things. Zion Rootswear, the official merchandisers of Bob Marley stuff, quickly became my favorite place to order from. After ordering from them (and a few other companies) for a while they started to include women’s sizes, which was very exciting for me. A lot of our customers were young women, and catering to them was important to me. I also did not want to wear men’s shirts, so I was eager to find cool t-shirts that actually fit my shape.
I always knew about Bob Marley, of course, but didn’t know much about him or about reggae in general. The punk rock episode of the 1990s PBS documentary series about rock and roll discussed the influence of reggae on punk bands, and that sparked my curiosity. I’m not sure when I first bought the Bob Marley & The Wailers Reggae Fever compilation, but I believe it was sometime in the 90s. I definitely bought it before Exodus. I have listened to both of them many, many times. As I listen to Exodus right now, it makes me want to learn more about Bob and reggae and Jamaican history. But what it’s doing more immediately is reminding me of Coventry and the fun I had working there.
A friend of mine who was also a barback in the bar I called home had worked at High Tide for about 20 years, and one night he mentioned that they were looking for help. I was working at the new Cheesecake Factory at the time, and I fucking hated it. I was also trying to avoid going bankrupt, so I needed to work as much as possible. I’d only been to Coventry once or twice before working there, but I felt right at home immediately. All the guys who worked there were gay, so that was awesome for me. Then there was a chick who also worked as a body piercer at a nearby studio, plus an older lady who had been there for about 8 years. The owner was a cool, tiny Jewish lady whom we all adored. She trusted each of us with a piece of the store, and it was a great time every day.
I loved the diversity of the neighborhood. Working at The Cheese was my first experience working away from the bland outer ring suburb I grew up in, and I was so glad to see black people, Latinos, and Jews! I have always been a hippy at heart, and it was awesome to finally get to interact with so many different people. Coventry was even more diverse, and I loved everything about it. Buddhists and atheists and communists, oh my!
There was a really nice family who came in regularly, and they had a ridiculously adorable and personable little girl named Alex. She would sometimes come in with her nanny, sometimes with her parents. She was very attached to the older lady who did the jewelry, perhaps because she reminded her of her nanny. When she quit, she started talking to me more often, and we were like best friends! She was about 5 years old. We would talk about all kinds of stuff, and her nanny and mom told me she talked about me at home. One day they came in and bought her one of the kid’s Bob Marley shirts. She told me that she loved music, and mentioned Bob Marley and Green Day. I asked her to sing me a Bob Marley song, and she proceeded to go through “No Woman No Cry” like it was a nursery rhyme. Wow.
I told Alex that I had the same Bob Marley shirt at home, and that I would wear it next time they came in. So the next week, here comes Alex with her tan Bob Marley shirt, and we were like twins! Her mom took our picture, and Alex had the picture in a frame on her nightstand. Mom told me that Alex would make up songs about me and talk about me a lot. I don’t know why she was so attached to me, but it was pretty cool. That little girl gave me something to feel happy about.
A lot of things remind me of working in Coventry, but Bob Marley is one of the most significant. I was happy to give the people what they wanted as far as t-shirts and other merchandise. I loved seeing people flip through the shirts I ordered. It’s good to know you’re good at something, even though it is not exactly changing the world. But if buying a new Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, or James Brown t-shirt made your world a little brighter, I’m glad. If a little girl can bond with some people at a gift shop, if she can serenade them with a reggae song, if she can make them smile, that’s a beautiful thing. If nothing else in your life is going the way you want it to, but you know you’re successful at one small thing, sometimes that’s enough to get you out of bed.
Bob Marley’s music brings people together. It is at once political and peaceful and joyful. Alex knew nothing of the politics of Jamaica. She felt the music. She responded. Bob Marley is a symbol for a lot of things: Jamaica, Rastafarianism, weed, reggae, protest. If you don’t know any reggae artists but Bob sometimes people think you’re a poseur, but at least he got you to notice the music. I’m an authority on rock and roll, not reggae. I definitely hear the reggae influence on rock and pop music post-Marley. I want to learn more. That’s what Bob Marley has given to me.