On April 28, The Regulator Bookshop, an independent bookstore on Ninth Street, joined bookshops across the country in celebrating Independent Bookstore Day (IBD). This year, The Regulator brought in hedgehogs for customers to pet, raffled advanced reader copies — books that have not yet gone to print — and gift certificates and gave away copies of a cookbook, “In Helen’s Kitchen,” which was written by Helen Hudson Whiting, one of the founders of the store who passed away in 2000.
IBD is an annual event originally inspired by Record Store Day. Both events look to raise awareness for independent book and record stores, respectively. The Northern California Independent Bookseller’s Association first created a California Bookstore Day from the model of Record Store Day. From there, the American Bookseller’s Association (ABA) joined in and provided the financial and technical support to increase the event to a national scope. The day is also another way for independent bookstores to engage the community, which is vitally important to the success of the store.
“That really is the secret sauce to their success, the role that the booksellers play in community organizations, the way they interact with the school systems, or the libraries, or other businesses,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of the ABA. “It’s that community connection that really is, at the end of the day, the indispensable ingredient that allows stores to succeed.”
By definition, independent bookstores are independently-owned and thus tend to be smaller in size and scope. However, this does not mean that larger stores will necessarily take over, nor does it mean that the industry will be consumed by other forms of media. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: ABA membership has seen continual growth in the past five years, and the numbers are up again this year, as are sales figures.
In the last few decades, independent bookstores have faced challenges, starting with the large chain bookstores in malls (B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks) in the late ‘60s, then superstores, then mass merchandisers (Walmart, Target, etc.) and warehouse clubs (Sam’s Club, Costco, etc.) starting to sell books and now the internet and electronic books.
“If I go back and think about the last 25, 30 years, there seems to be every few years some tsunami that’s going to come and wipe us out, but we’re still here,” Teicher said.
He again attributes that success, that endurance, to the role independent bookstores play in the community and the unique experience each independent bookstore creates. The Regulator has weathered all of these challenges in its 41 years in business, and its community support plays a major part in its prosperity.
“Steve Schewel was one of their [the owners’] classmates, he’s now the mayor of Durham," said Amy Spaulding, events coordinator at The Regulator. "This whole group of Duke students who stayed in the area and really believed in Durham and have lived here for a long time have created a really supportive community for this bookstore."
The Regulator has similarly strived to give back to that community, hosting events like monthly cat adoptions, preschool storytime, author talks and even a breastfeeding class by the Women’s Birthing and Wellness Center. It also provides a space for people who want to just spend some time reading or browsing the shelves.
Spaulding recalled two children in particular that come in every day at the same time.
“They bring their Italian ices in. They come in by themselves. They look like they’re about 10, a boy and a girl. They come in and they go straight back to the children’s section. They put their ices on the table and they read. When they’re done, they throw away their little ices and they leave,” Spaulding said. “Someone feels like this is a safe place for them to go where they can spend a little time, and we’re just happy they’re in the store.”
She also said The Regulator isn’t “all about money.” It’s about the experience and the culture created in part by how long the employees and the owners have worked at the store, most of them over 10 years, if not longer.
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“They have seen people grow up at this store and go off to college and come back," Spaulding said. "They know who they are and what they like to read. It’s kind of like Cheers, everyone knows your name kind of thing."
Teicher also had a short stint working at The Regulator during the holiday season, which he has done now at dozens of independent bookstores across the nation. At The Regulator, he noted the knowledge and passion of the staff, calling it “uncanny” that no matter how unusual or obscure a customer’s request, a staff member would always be able to provide a recommendation.
While there has been a lot of continuity at The Regulator, the store recently went through a change in ownership at the beginning of March. The former owners, Tom Campbell, Trinity ‘70, and John Valentine, Trinity ‘71, decided to retire, handing ownership to two longtime employees, Wander Lorentz de Haas and Elliot Berger.
In Valentine’s retirement speech, he brought up special memories from his 40 years of working every day in the store, from Jimmy Carter’s visit to the release of the Harry Potter books. He also discussed the importance of keeping local, independent stores open.
“Bookstores are really super important for freedom, for having multiple opinions, reading what you want to read,” Valentine said. “That’s why you want different people coming from different places curating different book selections, not one store dictating this is what’s available.”