by Charly Mann
Kemp Battle Nye was a remarkable and bigger than life human being. He once told me that he lived his life by these words of Lao-Tse, the 6th century BC Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism; “The here and now is all there is. If one wishes to be memorialized, he best be about it while he lives.”
Kemp at his prime in 1958
Selling Records by the inch in 1957
Kemp is primarily remembered in Chapel Hill as the personality behind the large record store he ran from 1955 to 1966 that bore his name, on East Franklin Street. Kemp was our most indelible citizen because he was charming, distinguished, handsome, incredibly energetic, gregarious, and flamboyant, a bon vivant, a natural storyteller, and one of the greatest pitchman who ever lived. Remarkably these are only a small part of the extraordinary characteristics that made this man. He also was a daring Asian Adventurer in the 1930s, the assistant to a charlatan mountain doctor, a highly decorated marine officer in the Second World War, and in his last years of life, the author of at least five fascinating and semi-autobiographical books.
Kemp in 1932 after his freshman year of college
Kemp's very first sale in 1955 & 1948 ad for Abernethy's which seven years later would become Kemp's and The Intimate Bookstore
Kemp was born in Winterville, North Carolina, a small town south of Greenville, on December 16, 1915. Soon after his birth his family moved to the unincorporated town of Grassy Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the Virginia border, where his father got a job teaching Cherokees. There, the family, which included three other brothers and two sisters, rarely had enough money for food. Much of what they ate they hunted or foraged for, including bear, pheasant, and rabbit.
Kemp Battle Nye - Horse Marine in Peking China, 1935
Kemp Stays Open All Night, 1964
At the age of twelve, Kemp went to work as the buggy diver and assistant to a mountain Doctor and raconteur named Doc Waddell. He was paid 25 cents a day with room and board. The doctor, Kemp learned, had five remedies for sickness – iron, strychnine, quinine, aspirin, and more aspirin. Kemp helped him combine these ingredients into eight different colored pills. The Doctor found that at least one of his pills would eventually cure almost all of his sick patients. Years later Kemp would recount his experiences with the Doctor in his first published book, Ripshin.
Kemp's Record Store, 1955
Note the sidewalks are still dirt. Next door is the Intimate Bookstore, and The Dairy Bar which had incredible donuts that I think Krispy Kreme copied.
In the late summer of 1931, at age 16, he set off on foot with $50 sewn into the linings of his pants to start school at the University of North Carolina. The 147-mile trip took seven days, and he did almost all his walking at night because of the hot weather. He got his food along the journey from roadside gardens. As a freshman he was known as a great runner, swimmer, and dare taker. He once bet a fellow student that he could swing like a monkey across the trees and vines in Cocker arboretum without touching the ground. Winning that bet got him a week’s worth of free lunches.
By 1932 the United States was at the height of the Depression, and Kemp could no longer afford to go to UNC. Wanting to see Europe, Kemp lied about his age, then seventeen, and joined the Marines. He was sent to China as part of the Horse Marine Guards that protected the United States ambassador in Peking. This elite mounted detachment Kemp said was "trained by the descendents of Genghis Khan, and fought recklessly, loved carelessly, and lived dangerously."
During this period Japan invaded China, and the weakened government of Chaing Kai Check was also fighting a communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong. When the American detachment in Peking was cut off from their supply of American money to pay their troops and employees, Kemp was smuggled through Japanese lines to rendezvous with an American ship off the coast of China. He was given $250,000 in $20 bills, which he placed on the saddlebags of his horse. On the way back he was surrounded by Japanese troops, and only avoided being killed when he got his Mongolian pony to leap over a twelve-foot embankment. Unfortunately, for Kemp, he was shot in the shoulder the next day by friendly Chinese troops who mistook him for a Japanese soldier. Luckily his wound was not severe, and he eventually got back to the American embassy with all of the money.
In 1936 shortly before Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize for The Good Earth, Kemp became her lover. He was surprised that someone as distinguished as Buck would want to have an affair with a young corporal, but in later years attributed it to Agnes Smedly's insight that “Love is just good old raw sex in action.”
For several years Kemp had an Oriental Shop on the right side of his store. By the 1960s it had become the location of Court's Drug Store, which was also destroyed by the 1966 fire.
In 1938 Kemp became a courier for American diplomats and military personal in China. In this capacity he had many long and dangerous missions throughout Asia. At the end of one he went into a restaurant in Saigon for some chop suey, and was seated at a table next to four older Vietnamese men. He noted that a monkey was placed under their table, and saw just the top of its skull emerging from a hole at the center of the table. Suddenly a man took a large knife and whacked off the top of the monkey’s head. The four men then proceeded to eat the monkey’s brain.
Also in 1938 he bought a slave girl at a rural market, and gave her her freedom. She stayed on with him as his cook, then lover, and according to one version of the story his wife. She was beautiful, spoke very good English, and was half American. They had two children, both of whom died at the hands of the Japanese. When Kemp was sent back to America in 1940, he tried to bring his wife, but was unable to get permission to do so. Kemp was never to hear from her again, and said that for the rest of his life he was haunted by her memory.
Crowds inside Kemp's in 1957
Kemp came back to Chapel Hill in 1940 after his discharge from the Marines and got a job working for “Ab” Milton Abernathy at his Intimate Book Store, which was located across from Graham Memorial. Kemp worked there as a typewriter repairman and clerk until he was recalled to the Marines soon after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He served in the South Pacific during World War II, participating in some of the bloodiest fighting in the war at Saipon, Taniam, and Iowa Jima where he came under extremely heavy fire. He received two Purple Hearts for wounds he sustained in battles there. He left the marines for good in 1946 at the rank of captain.
Kemp came back to Chapel Hill in 1946, and returned to work at the Intimate as the manager of the store’s record department. By 1950 Kemp claimed it had the largest selection of phonograph albums in the South. Besides running the record shop, he also became a licensed surveyor, joining a firm called Guiterrez, Abernathy, and Nye.
In 1954 the Intimate was purchased by Walter Kuralt, and soon moved to the main part of Franklin Street. Milton Abernathy owned the old dilapidated building the Intimate was located in, and worked out an arrangement with Kemp to turn the entire building into a record store. The name of that store became Kemp’s, the greatest record store Chapel Hill has ever known. Most of us have always thought the business was owned by Kemp, but it seems it was always partly, or entirely, owned by Abernathy, and Kemp was the manager.
Kemp in 1955
Kemp's motto - "Keep Kemp's Green". The Eastgate Shopping Center Store was opened in 1961
Visiting Kemp’s Record Store was always a wonderful experience. The store was filled with records of every style and category, except rock, which Kemp abhorred. He once said he never sold "that Elvis crap". The store always had a mystical aura. There were hand carved jade and ivory figurines displayed in glass cabinets throughout the store, and there was often the smell of incense, and Tibetan or Classical Chinese music playing. I became enamored with the store and the man when I was six, and bought in rapid succession three albums from him; the motion picture soundtrack of Oklahoma, the Overtures of Rossini, and the Burl Ives album entitled Sings for Fun. For most of the next ten years I became a fixture at the store, and a disciple of the man. I remember him telling me when I was eight that he was a Buddhist, and showing me several Buddhas that were in the store. I became enchanted with the idea of becoming a Buddhist until I was twelve, and I was astonished to find Kemp getting confirmed in Episcopal Church the same time as me.
Kemp was not really a music person, but a showman and huckster. He could have sold and promoted anything, and just happened to be in the record business. He always had a sales gimmick to get people into his store, from selling records by the inch, pound, to sales that would run all night. He would often boast if he didn’t have the record you were looking for nobody else would. Unfortunately this was not true. The much smaller album selection at McGinty’s Sports Shop, in the center of Franklin Street, almost always had a better selection of current and popular albums than Kemp's. By the late 50’s rock and roll had replaced folk, classical, and pop vocal as the most popular music in Chapel Hill, and Kemp's never adapted to this change. At the same time 45 rpm hit singles were becoming much more popular than albums, and Kemp only sold 45s for a short time. By 1964, when the Beatles became a worldwide musical phenomena, Kemp’s had become irrelevant. The Record Bar opened a store just a short walk from Kemps that not only sold 45s, but also had a great selection of rock records.
The ad on the left appeared on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. The ad is also for the Record and Tape Center in Durham, which had just opened. The other ad is from 1955.
A fire heavily damaged Kemp’s on May 6th, 1966. The already crumbling building was condemned, but Kemp continued selling records there until a few months later when another fire set by two teenage girls destroyed what was left of Kemp's. A few months later Kemp began selling records out of a tent he put up on the lot where his store had been, but the era of Kemp's Record Store was over. He tried for a while running the Record and Tape Center in Durham (which was later the first record store I would manage), and later had a small “Hippie” style music and paraphernalia store called Kemp's Ahead Shop.
The July 1966 fire that destroyed Kemp's
The remains of Kemp's and Court's Drug Store (right) after the fire
Kemp's literally rose from the ashes in October of 1966 into a tent on the lot where his store had been.
Kemp retired from the music business in 1977, and spent most of his remaining years writing books about his daring exploits in 1930’s China, and his youth in the mountains of North Carolina. His book Ripshin was published in 1993. He also assembled a book made up of some of the 15,000 photographs he took in his years in China that he wanted to call A UNC Tarheel in China. Among the photos were those of public decapitations and people frozen to death after fleeing the Japanese to the mountains of China. Kemp died on April 28, 1994. He told me that he wanted his ashes scattered on the Nankow Pass portion of the Great Wall, which is located northwest of Peking.
The Franklin Street Frenchman
Kemp referred to himself as the Franklin Street Frenchman, and often advertised his store as Chez Kemp’s. It was not uncommon to see him wearing a beret in the mid 1950s. He claimed to be a descendent of the great Napoleonic General Michel Ney (Marechal Ney is the French spelling) who served with Napoleon until his defeat at Waterloo. He was known as the bravest of the brave, and perhaps the cleverest of the clever. He was condemned to death and publicly executed for his service to Napoleon in 1815, but according to Kemp and some other serious scholars, his death was staged and he escaped to the United States, where he changed his name to Peter Stuart Nye. He lived near Salisbury, married and raised a family, and died in 1846. He told several people on his deathbed his true identity. Kemp’s own exploits in China, World War II, and in the business world, mirror Ney's traits of coolness under adversity, courageousness, and quick thinking. One of the highlights of his later years was staying at Saint-Paul de Vence, one of the most beautiful villages in Provence, with his wife Nancy.
The Franklin Street Frenchman's Chez Kemp's
What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. or the crisp October nights. No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People.