This was written for The Regulator's 30th anniversary in December, 2006:
A small and perhaps improbable bookstore opens its door for the first time on a cold Saturday morning. It is early in December, 1976. There's a vague memory of snow flurries in the air.
We set things up so that our first customer that morning was Agnes Birkhead, the grandmother of one of the store's founding lights. Agnes had been the court stenographer at the Scopes "monkey" trial and gone on to be Sinclair Lewis's personal assistant. Agnes Birkhead was a touchstone for us, a connection to a strong American tradition of truth-seeking and independent thinking. We hope that, 30 years on, our actions continue to honor her memory.
A few months before that December morning, Agnes's grandson David put down a month's rent on a small retail space at 720 Ninth Street and called a meeting of a group of friends, mostly recent Duke graduates. The idea had been kicking around of starting a bookstore in Durham. David had found a space we could do it in. Did anyone want to put some work into getting this going?
I was just out of graduate school with no pressing plans, so I signed on for a couple of months to help get the store started. Luckily, so did Aden Field, who brought to the undertaking bookkeeping experience and insight into setting up systems to help us track all the details you have to keep on top of to run a bookstore. All of our special orders are still run through basically the same system that Aden set up in 1976.
The bookstore that opened that December 4th occupied the front third of the upstairs of our current space. We expanded into the rest of the upstairs in 1990, and into the downstairs in 1998. Aden left the store in 1978, and John Valentine came on to run the store with me. We added Helen Whiting to our team in 1982, and we'll never recover from Helen's far too early death in March 1999.
Thinking back on The Regulator's earliest days, it's clear that the bookstore was founded in a completely different universe, in a place you just can't get to anymore. The power's down, the roads are out, the trails are unmarked and overgrown. In this far away place there was a working textile mill across the street, and Ninth Street was populated by "mill village" shops-a couple of grills that only served breakfast and lunch, a hardware store, a post office, McDonald's drug store. Durham was still a tobacco and textile town, and though we didn't really know it at the time, the bookstore's opening was a harbinger of change to come. More change than we could ever have imagined at the time.
But one thing has remained constant through all these years-the amazing support that this town has given to our community-oriented bookstore. That an independent bookstore the size (and may we humbly say) status of The Regulator continues to succeed in a city the size of Durham is highly unusual. Durham certainly gets its share of bad press, and gets the cold shoulder from many of our haughtier Triangle neighbors. But here at the Regulator we've come to know that there's a lot more to this town than the conventional wisdom, and the media, give it credit for. We wouldn't want to run a bookstore anywhere else. Thank you, Durham, for thirty wonderful years.
Thanks also to all of our friends, customers, and supporters throughout the area, the state, and the country. Thanks to all the incredible people who have worked at the store over these many years. Thanks to the authors who have visited us, and to all our friends in the publishing industry. And thanks finally to you, our wonderful customers, who walk through our door every day and help keep our still improbable bookstore alive and well. In our best moments we realize that this place exists only as a partnership with our community and our customers. We hope you always feel free to contribute to our ongoing dialogue, and that you will want to participate in our partnership for many years to come.