'Improbable' Durham Bookstore Turns 30

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The Regulator Bookshop, an 8,000-square-foot, two-story general bookstore in a vibrant Durham, North Carolina, neighborhood, celebrated its 30th anniversary last weekend, and Durham's mayor issued a proclamation declaring December 4 "Regulator Bookshop Day."

A banner across the front window proclaims Regulator's 30th anniversary.

Although the store's first day of business on December 4, 1976, may have been low-key -- co-owner and co-founder Tom Campbell recalls a cold Saturday morning with some snow flurries and a "small and perhaps improbable" cramped bookshop -- Regulator's 30th anniversary was celebrated with considerable fanfare. A gathering of close to 500 of the store's nearest and dearest customers and associates enjoyed a jazz band, reminisced, and kept cash registers humming until midnight last Saturday night. "It was probably the biggest sales day in the store's history," Campbell said.

Last weekend's anniversary party.

The store was originally financed through a $5,000 bank loan and $10,000 borrowed from individuals. Campbell, with an advanced degree in environmental management, along with several other Duke University graduates, started Regulator Bookshop in a rented space on the upper floor of the Ninth Street building the store now owns. Seating included a bookseller-made couch, constructed from plywood and two-by-fours, which still stands in the children's section of the store. Current co-owner John Valentine, a former recreational therapist and frequent customer, became a partner in 1978, replacing co-founder Aden Field. In 1982, Helen Whiting joined as a third partner, running daily operations until her death in 1999.

Campbell and Valentine recounted the store's early days in several local newspaper interviews, which also served to help publicize the store's anniversary celebration. Regulator's beginnings predated the regular use of in-store computers, and Campbell recalled the store's first $100 sales day.

From its start as a youthful, counterculture institution, Regulator has progressed gently into middle age and a slightly more mainstream image. But Campbell is emphatic in describing Regulator as a "non-corporate, non-chain, independent business contributing to the civic and creative life of the community."

The Sawyer-Goldberg Jazz band played in the children's section.

Information handed out in the store and included on its website details the importance of supporting local businesses, including data on how much more money local businesses contribute to the community versus national chains. "A lot of this is stuff I learned through the ABA," Campbell told BTW.

He also credits the Book Sense program for several enhancements to the store. "We keep our Book Sense display just to the right of the sales counter," Campbell explained. "It does well for us and is good use of our space. The [BookSense.com] website has become more and more popular. At the end of November, we offered a $5 Book Sense gift card with every online order over $40, through December 15. It's been great -- our only problem is keeping up with the orders. We've seen a steady increase in our web activity."

The store celebrates its anniversary annually with a sale during the first weekend of December. "It always draws a lot of business," Campbell said. "It's a great start for holiday sales. If I were giving advice to someone starting a new bookstore, I'd recommend scheduling their opening in early December so they can be sure to have a big post-Thanksgiving splash every year." --Nomi Schwartz