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Forty years of The Regulator Bookshop, a day at a time

<p>Independent Bookstore The Regulator, run by Duke alums Tom Campbell and John Valentine, celebrated its 40th anniversary Saturday.&nbsp;</p>

Independent Bookstore The Regulator, run by Duke alums Tom Campbell and John Valentine, celebrated its 40th anniversary Saturday. 

Shortly before the American Revolution, a group of farmers in central North Carolina organized in protest of unfair taxation by colonial officials. They brought their fight to the governor in the form of a petition. He did not respond kindly. A battle ensued between the farmers and colonial troops, ending in the shooting or hanging deaths of most of the farmers, who called themselves the “Regulators.”

This tidbit of local history may have gone forgotten were it not for a couple “long-haired pseudo-radicals” fresh out of graduate school. Having just finished their studies at Duke, Tom Campbell, Trinity ‘70, and John Valentine, Trinity ‘71, saw a need for a local bookstore in Durham. When deciding on a name for the shop, they looked to the story of the Regulators for inspiration. It was obscure, it was rebellious and, put simply, it sounded cool. And so The Regulator Bookshop opened its doors Dec.1976.

“It seemed like something we’d do for a few years at most,” Campbell said.

The Regulator celebrated its 40th anniversary Saturday. For the occasion the two former hippies donned suits and conservative haircuts, but the bookshop remains just as committed to the spirit of independence embodied by the original Regulators as when it began. Housed in the heart of the Ninth Street shopping district just two blocks from Duke’s East Campus, The Regulator has established itself as a cultural institution for Durhamites and Duke students alike.

On Saturday, Ninth Street was bustling with foot traffic for the coffeehouses, diners and boutiques that, along with The Regulator, make up one of the most dense concentrations of local businesses in the Triangle. But when co-owners Campbell and Valentine started the bookstore in 1976, setting up shop in that area was something of a gamble.

“We were like pioneers,” Campbell said. “If you study the settlement of the west, often the very first people who go someplace didn’t make it. We were the first.”

Neither Campbell nor Valentine had any experience in business. With the help of generous loaners, the addition of a third partner, Helen Whiting, and a fair share of sweat equity, The Regulator “hung on” for a couple years. Soon, other businesses caught onto the low rents and accessibility of Ninth Street, making it an incubator for independent business.

Since then, The Regulator has weathered the tides of the book market, from the advent of new technology to the dominance of chain retailers. In an age where the majority of reading occurs online, Campbell explained the appeal of The Regulator.

“When I’m out on the sales floor, I very often end up having all kinds of amazing conversations with people—very often people I don’t really know,” Campbell said. “That kind of interchange you can’t get on the Internet, you can’t get in a chain store as easily. This is a place where people feel comfortable to let their guard down and explore some.”

Valentine added: “Some of the best things that happen here are things that are unscripted.”

These unscripted moments have given life to The Regulator for the last four decades. Valentine compared daily work at the bookstore to a Kroger checkout line, where often the motto is scan, scan, scan. Sometimes, though, the unpredictable—whether a deep conversation about a book, a question from a curious child during a reading or a moment of absurd comedy—breaks the mundane.

Beyond providing a space for spontaneous conversation, The Regulator makes reading a physical, tactile activity worth spending a few hours on. When people spend their entire day looking at a screen, Campbell explained, going to a bookstore acts as a much-needed respite. Much like vinyl record stores, The Regulator provides a home for a counter-revolution of sorts against the digital age.

“People hunger for new stuff that’s good stuff,” Valentine said. “They like the print.”

The co-owners reported that, as a result, The Regulator has only continued to flourish in the last few years. Customers who shopped there when the store began now bring kids and grandkids–a fact that was evident at the anniversary celebration Saturday, when small children and their parents joined grad students and senior citizens for a rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the shop’s basement, next to a wall of newspaper clippings chronicling a storied past.

Looking ahead, Campbell summed up the shop’s outlook: “a day at a time, a week at a time, a year at a time.” This philosophy has served The Regulator well for forty years—here’s to forty more.


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