Remembrances from 40 Years of the Regulator

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"The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, North Carolina" by Laurent DuBois

From My Bookstore; reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group. 

“Can we go to the Regulator?” Among the many different questions I get from my 9-year-old son, Anton, when I pick him up from school, this is by far my favorite. He well knows by now that—in contrast to many of the other requests for exciting outings he might make at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon—the answer will always be an easy and emphatic “Yes!” An outing to the Regulator has its attendant attractions, to be sure: a dinner at Dain’s, our favorite 9th Street pub, concluded either with their only dessert item (Oreos and a glass of milk) or a milkshake at Ox & Rabbit, an old soda shop converted into hipster heaven. We’ll likely run into some friends as we wander up the sidewalk. But this is just preparation for the main course: sauntering into the Regulator, where Anton runs back to the kids’ section of the bookstore while I stop to talk about the latest soccer news with Wander (whose life history includes a stint in a Dutch youth soccer academy) or Tom, the store’s benevolent sovereign.

More often than not, there’s a hefty stack of books waiting for me, the ones I’ve ordered online from the store. When I pick them up I get the pleasure of some sincere questions about precisely why I might be reading a self-reflective ethnography of West Africa, a recent book on soccer in Mexico, the latest collection of critical essays on NGOs in Haiti, and a classic work by Amitav Ghosh. But unless I’m in a rush I know better than to pay for these ordered books when I arrive. It will be tough for me to get past the tables inside the door, decked out with recent titles of perpetual diversity, many signed by authors who have recently made the necessary stop to a store that has, over the years, helped to define the intellectual culture of our funky, changing, contented post-industrial city.

The Regulator opened its doors in 1976. It was, as one of the store’s founders and its current owner Tom Campbell wrote in 2006, “a small and perhaps improbable bookstore.”1 At the time, Durham’s 9th Street, which is just two blocks from Duke University, was largely defined by a closer neighbor: a large textile mill that sat basically across the street. Back then it was packed with workers who went to 9th Street for meals and errands. All the stores that were there in 1976—including McDonald’s Drug Store, a hardware store, and a series of grills that served breakfast and lunch—are gone now. The Regulator is the oldest business on a street that now caters to Duke students and Durham residents looking for coffee, toys, hip T-shirts, records, yoga classes, and, of course, books.

The building that houses the Regulator was, at the time, home to a small local printing press—the Regulator Press. The name, probably gleaned from a history class taken by some of the Duke graduates who worked there, honored a locally famous bunch of precocious North Carolina rebels who, years before the American Revolution, carried out an uprising against the British. It was, as Tom Campbell recently summarized to me, both “local and rebellious,” which at the time captured the spirit of the store. It still does.

While the name preserves a bit of local history, the store also commits itself to offering customers a wide selection of books about North Carolina. Since I moved to Durham five years ago, the Regulator has been where I’ve learned about the sedimented stories that define my adopted home. The town’s history is defined, even dominated, by tobacco. Though the city no longer smells like Brightleaf being dried and cured, the red brick factories loom everywhere—though most are now converted into apartments, studios, offices, shops, or restaurants. Because it really didn’t exist until after the Civil War, Durham was defined less by the plantation than by the factory. It became home to a prominent and successful African-American middle class, famously boasting a “Black Wall Street” and touted as a model by Booker T. Washington. North Carolina Mutual, long one of the largest African-American businesses in the country, was founded here by an ex-slave. One of the country’s oldest historically black universities, North Carolina Central University, makes its home here. It abuts a neighborhood known as Hayti, so named as the city was built because—like the country in the Caribbean—it was a place where people of African descent could rule themselves and build their own institutions. As it happens, I’m a historian of Haiti, so the fact that I can find myself in Haiti while in Durham—and can take my various Haitian visitors home, in a way, when they are here—is something that gives me particular pleasure. Durham has long greeted seekers like myself—immigrants with various convoluted stories who have found in North Carolina something nearing the home they’d long imagined.

Like any rapidly changing community, Durham has gotten increasingly self-conscious lately—there are T-shirts and bumper stickers that announce, with slight aggressions born of supercilious comments made by friends in New York, “Durham: It’s Not for Everyone.” Others demand, with the fear of recent arrivals who are worried that the next arrivals will destroy what they came to enjoy, “Keep Durham Dirty.” Sometimes it does feel as if Durham is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. Still, there’s something true and good about the desire to keep things local. And it is a striking fact that within downtown Durham itself you’ll find almost no chain stores (beyond the inevitable McDonald’s). The city has gotten rather famous for its ever-proliferating food culture; every week, it seems, a new food truck appears, and within a few months it becomes a store, and then another follows, until it’s become quite difficult to decide precisely where to get a cupcake or pain au chocolate, not to mention a delectable meal of all locally produced food, on any given day.

But among all these local businesses the Regulator holds a particularly central place. Part of what Durham is, in so many ways, is the intersection between Duke University and the broader community, and the bookstore is pivotal in that relationship. It is a hub around which much life in Durham circles, bringing together readers and talkers in a swirling, open way.

My son’s reading life circles around the Regulator too. The day a particular book is released—the latest installment of Big Nate was the last one in question—we speed from school to the shop. He dashes out of the car as soon as we park along 9th Street, and by the time I manage to catch up with him at the counter he’s already holding the book, handed to him with a “Here you are, Anton!” Then it’s the dash back to begin reading, then and there. If there’s no book waiting, he skips past the counter with a quick “Hi!” and I’ll find him, minutes later, sitting down amongst the bookshelves, engrossed. We used to read together; now I’m basically superfluous (except for my wallet, of course), but I do get to look at particularly hilarious or notable pages in the books he’s reading. Sometimes he’ll make a pitch that his school desperately needs a particular book in its library. Each year his school holds a two-day event at the store where kids read favorite books, as well as some of their own writings, and parents can buy books requested by the teachers. I love that he’s learned that we each play a role in the big warm web of books: choosing, giving, reading, writing. With two writers as parents, he’s already kind of surrounded by the idea of reading and writing books, but the Regulator is what makes that experience truly one of community in the largest sense.

There’s a spot in the back of the Regulator, at the crossroads between the children and young-adult books and the “Society” section of recent nonfiction, that always has the feel of a twenty-first-century salon. There’s a small area with a comfortable couch, a chair, and a long pillowed bench, where you’ll usually find a group of people sitting and reading together. They might chat occasionally about what they’re reading. Anton and I can spend hours there, slouched and paging through different books, chatting with others doing the same. Sometimes a writer happens by, and we buy a book and have him or her sign it. Sometimes there’s a reading downstairs, and it might include a short concert of blues music, a heated political argument, or cascades of delirious laughter. There are political meetings, book-group meetings, and more informal meetings that make up the texture of daily life in a place worth living in. The work of the bookstore is, ultimately, to create that kind of space. At the Regulator, they do it through their books, of course, through the events that, week after week, bring a remarkable group of writers and thinkers to the store. But they do it as much through the cultivation of a space that says to anyone and everyone: Come on in, take your time, stay for two minutes or two hours. And because of the time spent inside, you’ll walk out into a world that’s a little bit different from when you came in.


1. Tom Campbell, “The Story Begins Like This,”

LAURENT DUBOIS was born in Belgium and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. He graduated from Princeton in 1992 and received a doctorate in anthropology and history from the University of Michigan in 1998. Since then, he has taught at Harvard University and Michigan State University and is now Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University. He is the author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan, 2012), Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2010), and Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2004) and is currently writing a history of the banjo.

Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group.