You might not suspect it while driving past the azalea-lined sidewalks and quaint historic homes of Summerville today, but at one point in the early 2000s, the Flowertown in the Pines was an underground hub for East Coast punk, metal, and hardcore music.
The scene centered around All Books & Company, a bookstore in the historic downtown area that opened up its tiny cafe in the evenings to high school students who booked shows featuring a lot of screaming vocals and punishing guitar riffs. Later, when All Books moved to a smaller location, the shows moved to Summerville's American Legion hall on Sumter Avenue, a cinder-block box hemmed in by churches on every side.
Against all odds, big-name national acts made stops in Summerville to play the DIY venues: Evergreen Terrace, He Is Legend, Baroness, With Honor. Bradley Simmons, a 2002 Summerville High School graduate who booked concerts throughout the Charleston area from 2003 to 2008, says it made perfect sense to him that the music caught on in his suburban hometown.
"What else was there to do? Outside of school, church, what other big social gathering was there? We had some bands play, and you could run around," Simmons says.
Rocking in the suburbs has always been a do-it-yourself proposition, particularly when the majority of the crowd is under 18 and the bars won't let you in. Simmons and his now-wife Ann worked at All Books growing up, and he says the bookstore's owner, Michelle List, was receptive when they and their coworker Thomas Howell approached her about booking shows in the store at night. Howell booked some of the store's earliest shows and also brought in more experimental acts.
All Books occupied a strange niche in Summerville at the time, even during the daylight hours. The old guard still shopped there, the children's section was always popular, and school teachers sent their students in to get discounts on assigned reading. But List had a countercultural edge, stocking a corner of her store with banned books and a few copies of the Anarchist Cookbook. She turned kids on to Kurt Vonnegut and Dave Eggers. She made feminists out of young Republicans.
List says she allowed the shows to happen because she trusted her employees. "In general that music is not appealing to me, but I liked Ann, who was the one who got Brad hired," List says. After warning them that she'd shut the whole thing down at the first hint of drugs or alcohol, she would leave for the evening and trust the teenagers to clean up after themselves.
A few grainy videos have survived from inside All Books, and the scenes they captured would shock most visitors to the picturesque Flowertown Festival. One video posted to YouTube features Through the Eyes of the Dead, a melodic deathcore band from Florence, blasting away around a drum set that took up perhaps an eighth of the floor area. The crowd surged backward during breakdowns so the kids in the center could mosh, throwing windmill punches and spin-kicks with violent abandon.
Whatever this scene was, it was not the Summerville you read about in Southern Living.
List says she generally stayed away when the shows were happening, but occasionally she would stop in if one of Simmons' bands was playing. She wasn't a fan, but she says she understood the appeal.
"It was the same thing as the hard rock music of the '70s when I was in high school. It's got a sexual beat to it, and it's very evocative," List says. "If you just stood in the middle of the room and let your body go, yes, that's exactly what it was. I certainly understand why they liked it, because you could feel the beat in your body and you could feel the pull of the music."
Simmons says he got a taste of the Charleston punk scene at a young age when he attended a show at the American Legion hall on Folly Road.
"There was definitely an established Charleston scene, but there was nothing in Summerville," Simmons says. "There were a lot of punk bands. Those shows were pretty dangerous. When I was 13, I went to my first show at the American Legion, and I got hit in the face with brass knuckles."
In comparison, the emerging Summerville scene seemed relatively safe. Jonathan Stout, a member of the Summerville High School class of 2002, was part of the youthful crowd who felt welcome in the sweaty embrace of an All Books concert.
"I didn't really like school because of the social aspect of it, but at shows, no one judged you like they did at school. Everyone was accepted," Stout says.
Stout played in a few bands through the years, but his most important contribution to the scene was a website, badjon.com, that served as a messageboard and a repository for live footage in an era before YouTube and Myspace. He says the forums became a place for "trash talk," but the music scene remained remarkably cohesive, even among people with widely different worldviews and subgenre tastes.
"Everyone kind of got along, even if they had different beliefs," Stout says. "It seems like everyone was a vegetarian at one time, and now they're not."
Dennis Iler, lead vocalist of the now-defunct hardcore bands Moving On and Blacklines, says he first plugged into the Summerville music scene via badjon.com, and he found a welcoming community.
A charismatic lead vocalist with a ferocious back-of-the-throat roar, Iler quickly learned the tricks of the trade. "You want to push from your gut," he says. "You learn that pretty quickly. If you do it wrong, you'll end up tearing up your throat and never be able to do it again."
Trends came and went in the Summerville scene — including emo, melodic metalcore, and ever-more-extreme strains of grindcore — but throughout, bands like Iler's thrived on a few key ingredients: danceable verses, anthemic choruses, and an ethos of absolute sincerity.
"It sounds really aggressive, but there's a lot of meaning in it and a lot of hope that kids find in it," Iler says. "I grew up in a very torn-apart kind of home, an abusive home with a lot of drugs in the house. So I drew from that ... And a lot of kids felt the same exact way, to where sometimes I wouldn't even have to sing. I could just hold the mic out and the kids would scream every word."
Today, Iler plays bass in the praise band at Freedom Church in Moncks Corner, not far from where he grew up. He still has bold black X tattoos on the backs of his calves, reminders of his youthful allegiance to straight edge, a hardcore subculture that abstains from alcohol and recreational drugs. For a time when he was growing up, churches including Seacoast, Faith Assembly, and St. Paul's in Summerville opened their doors to allow hardcore and punk bands — Christian and non-Christian alike — to play in their buildings.
"You'd have all these kids that didn't really care anything about Christianity or God or anything, and they'd just come and this building was opened up to them," Iler says. "It was really cool because you could see what the church was trying to do. They were not trying to outcast anybody, just letting everybody in."
The Summerville scene that blossomed in churches and a bookstore was markedly different from the Charleston scene that Simmons remembered from the late '90s.
"Seventy percent of the time, I knew everybody. There were shows where we'd get in pillow fights while the bands played," Simmons says. "We'd pay the bands $40 or $50, gas was cheap, and it was just fun."
There was never much money in booking shows for high school students, even when crowds of more than 100 people packed out All Books. Simmons eventually started booking shows at more adult-oriented venues in Charleston, including Cumberland's and Music Farm.
"Summerville has always been a younger scene because it's a suburb. It's all high school kids," Simmons says. "It's hit or miss, too, because of that. You either have everybody show up or no one show up. There's no in-between. Everybody's talking about it or no one's talking about it."
Today, one person carrying on the metal and hardcore torch is PJ Taylor, proprietor of the Facebook page Charleston Shows. A 2004 Summerville High School grad who has since moved to downtown Charleston, he's booking most of his shows at small downtown venues, including The Royal American, King Dusko, Big Gun Burger Shop & Bar, Boone's Bar, and Joe Pasta. He has also helped organize shows at the Skatepark of Charleston, including last year's all-day Rocktoberfest, which featured national touring acts Emery and Norma Jean. The crowds come from all over.
"It's spread out. There's kids from Summerville, North Charleston, Goose Creek, downtown, and they're all like-minded," Taylor says.
A small crop of local hardcore and metal bands has sprung up in recent years, including Backwards Youth, False Light, ENTER, and the unholy noisemakers of Godwin Falcon, but, as has always been the case, Charleston-area metal and hardcore shows tend to be heavy on touring acts.
"You can ask any band that comes through here, kids in Charleston are nuts in the best way possible," Taylor says. "We don't get a lot of the shows, so whenever they do, I don't care if eight or 800 kids, they're fucking going nuts. They're jumping off things, they're moshing hard. We're not jaded yet, so the kids are very appreciative and they let the bands know it."
The All Books era came to an end in 2004 when List relocated her store to a smaller location, but Stout says old friends still sometimes ask to see photos or videos from when their favorite band came to town.
As for List, who has since retired and closed the bookstore, she still sometimes hears from former Summerville punks and metalheads, some of them now in their 30s with children. Recently, she says she was attending an art show of her former employee Melinda Mead Scharstein when someone let slip that she used to own All Books, and suddenly a cluster of fans formed around her.
"They'd been drinking wine, I have to tell you, but suddenly they all had tears in their eyes about 'Oh, the shows at All Books,' and how they loved them," List says. "They talked about how it was the first time they got to be in charge of anything, the first time anybody trusted them with anything."
List, too, gets a little wistful talking about the old days — particularly one incident that took place near the end of her time at the downtown Summerville location. Town government had decided to tear up the street in front of her store and replace it with a pedestrian walkway, and it was killing her business, she says.
As was the tradition around Christmastime every year, the Salvation Army and other charity organizations had dropped off a wishlist of books at the store for disadvantaged children, and List was offering discounts to customers who bought books for the children. "I was so upset because we just hadn't had hardly anything purchased out of the list," she says.
Then one weekend, she noticed that Simmons had booked an unusually large number of bands in the evenings.
"I'd just never seen them doing this much, and they had bands from everywhere — they were coming in from Massachusetts, from all over," List says. "And when they were done, they handed me — I don't even remember how much money it is now, but they handed me so much money that I was able to buy books for all of those kids."
By Simmons' recollection, the total was more than $1,000. List says it was enough to buy additional books for children in a local group home. She was overwhelmed.
"All of these kids were in on it, hundreds of local kids, and nobody said anything to me until it was over," List says. "I just can't believe that all of these people kept a secret until it was over. That was amazing. Teenagers and pre-teens, 13- to 20-year-olds coming in there and putting their money in a bucket, keeping a secret like that. It's just so amazing to me."