Arts & Culture

Cultural Clearinghouse

  • By John Murawski
  • Photography by Lissa Gotwals

When customers make a purchase at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, they also make a commitment to a local store with a national reputation.


The Regulator Bookshop sells an amazing selection of books by North Carolina authors. Customers fill rucksacks with regional books and local magazines they can’t find elsewhere.

But on a good day, they also spot favorite local authors browsing the stacks — master storytellers, such as Lee Smith, Doris Betts, and Allan Gurganus.

Author sightings are one draw at this independent book dealer favored by writers and literature lovers. The Regulator’s owners, John Valentine and Tom Campbell, were on a first-name basis with many North Carolina literary celebrities back when the young writers were regular shoppers with books still in manuscript form. A longstanding relationship with regional writers gives The Regulator special status as a cultural clearinghouse and literary destination for North Carolina prose and poetry.

What locavores love about the recent foodie movement — fierce loyalty to local growers and producers — The Regulator has provided to North Carolina’s writers and magazines for more than three decades. Regulator habitués who’ve become big-time names include such luminaries as Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain.

“We always felt like he got his start here,” says Wander Lorentz de Haas, a Regulator manager. “We definitely push their books forward. We get them in here for readings; we display their books prominently.”

Stubborn independence

The Regulator originated 35 years ago when a handful of Duke University graduates decided to open an alternative bookstore. As time moved on, the Regulator’s owners kept the faded carpet, the mismatched decor, the handbuilt sofa — an antifashion statement that defines the store’s signature style.

The Regulator took its name from a print shop that once occupied the same building in Durham’s former tobacco and textile district. The bookshop, born in an antiestablishment mood, kept the cognomen for the 18th-century rebels who rose up against North Carolina’s Colonial authorities.

The founders ran their bookstore as a political experiment and nonprofit for several years until it became apparent that this bibliophile’s Mecca had a future as a self-sustaining business, outcompeting the corporate chains.

Today, The Regulator is regarded as one of the premier indie bookshops in the country, stocking one of the best selections in the Southeast. When a local writer makes it big here with a local following, the cultural ripples travel far beyond the state. For years, The New York Times has relied on The Regulator’s list of top sellers to compile its national best-seller list. What Regulator customers buy and read helps define the nation’s cultural, political, and intellectual mood.

The shop’s owners insist on complete control of their book displays, presenting buyers with an idiosyncratic array of choices that emphasize North Carolina culture. That authority runs counter to the industry norm, which strives for standardized displays: Big publishers normally select which titles receive prominent placement at local bookstores, and ultimately, which books get bought.

“We don’t take kickbacks from publishers,” Valentine says. “We haven’t sold the store out to make money for the corporations.”

This stubborn independence means that between two percent and three percent of the book titles displayed here are local and self-published, bypassing the publishing industry altogether.

Regional recognition

Some of the more obscure North Carolina writers displayed here might be selling their books out of their car trunks or from a cousin’s knickknack store if The Regulator wasn’t here for them. Despite its high profile, The Regulator offers premier shelf space to first-timers and the self-published, such as retired Durham County District Judge Craig Brown, a blind jurist who titled his memoir Blind Justice, and North Carolina Central University’s former education dean and master calligrapher Walter Matthew Brown, who penned I Walked the Sloping Hills.

That same North Carolina focus permeates the magazine room, with 400-some titles. The regional publications aren’t shunted off to the side, as if unworthy of top billing with national magazines. Bull Spec, a Durham publication that promotes itself as a magazine of speculative fiction, sits beside New York’s literary stalwart The Paris Review.

“The owners just have an affinity for local authors, and it’s largely driven by the fact that they happen to shop here,” Wander says. “When we see them here, we ask them to autograph their books, which gives a book a little more cachet.”

The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth Street
Durham, N.C. 27705
(919) 286-2700

John Murawski, a staff writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh, has worked for newspapers in Washington, D.C.; Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This entry was posted in Books, February 2012, Piedmont and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Cultural Clearinghouse

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading List from The Regulator Bookshop in Durham Our State Magazine

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