"A group of people came together and said, 'Hey, we have this shared pipe dream,'" explains Tom Campbell, one of the two co-owners of the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street in Durham, which this December celebrates its 30th year of business. I'm talking with Tom and his business partner, John Valentine, in the store's messy back room, which once housed the printing machinery for the now-defunct Regulator Press. Now it's Tom and John's office.
"I had just finished a graduate school environmental management degree and needed to stay in this area because of what my wife was doing," Tom says. "I didn't have a job. I said, 'I've got nothing to do for the next few months, I'll help get it started.' And from that commitment of a few months, I've been here 30 years."
That's how it all began. Borrowing $5,000 from the bank and another $10,000 from individuals, the young entrepreneurs built the place from the ground up in a small storefront at 720 Ninth St., less than a quarter of their current size. They even built themselves a small green couch out of plywood and two-by-fours; it's still there. Tom's wife sewed the cushions.
John was one of the store's first customers, and came on board as a partner to help run the store in 1978. "I was a recreational therapist, and I've always loved information," he says. "I saw the bookstore as a way to be politically active and to give information to others."
A third partner, Helen Whiting, joined the Regulator in 1982, and passed away in 1999.
Tom still remembers their first $100 day. "It was a big deal. With inflation it's probably like a $300 day. But still, if we had a $300 day now, we'd be like, it's over."
"We started out really small," Tom says. "And part of the reason we survived, especially the first five or six years, is that we didn't have any families or real responsibilities. We lived really cheap, and we could keep the place going on a shoestring."
"For the first couple years we weren't even giving ourselves regular paychecks," John says. "It was more, 'What do you need?'" (John is a regular contributor to the Independent. He has written more than 200 pieces for our pages since 1992.)
But from these humble origins, the Regulator has persevered, expanding into the rest of the upstairs storefront in 1990 and down into the basement of its building (which the partners now own) in 1994.
"One funny memory I have is when we first expanded, we got a hot shower," John says. "And I don't think either of us had a hot shower at home. It was a luxury!"
"It got used some, yeah," Tom says, laughing. "Back then we both lived in shacks, out in the sticks."
"I remember the first time we expanded," John continues. "Helen said, 'Now it's not like playing bookstore.' Because we didn't know anything about running a business. And that was an asset. Tom has become a tremendous accounting and computer genius—they didn't even exist!"
Tom adds, "There were no computers. They came along, and I was like, oh, we can use these."
After 30 years, one or both of the partners still comes in nearly every day, something they consider a great advantage in their work. "We've been great at adapting," John says, "because we're here every day. Our ears and noses are to the ground, we're street level—we can find things out very quickly."
"Usually people burn out," he adds.
But they haven't. Instead, they've become a Durham institution.
"It's funny," John says, "because we're in this ironic position. We've always been underdogs. We were poor, struggling undergraduates at Duke and graduates at Duke, so we know exactly what it's like to be an undergraduate at Duke and a graduate student at Duke. And it's funny, because I think a lot of Duke students see us as 'the man' now. Because we've always been here. We were here when their parents were here."
It surprises them both a bit to hear John say this, and to realize that it's true, that they're now serving their second generation of Durham residents. Then John finishes his thought: "It's a funny thing to come to terms with, to be an authority figure of any kind. And it's nice that we've grown up together through that, and with Helen. Because we all grew up in the shadow of the counterculture of Duke University. And this area, in the '70s and '80s, was just glorious. You could do anything."
Do they think somebody could do it today, start a business on the fly with just a couple thousand dollars in the bank, and last? "No," they both say in unison, immediately.
"There have been two real estate explosions on Ninth Street," John says, "and they've basically priced out everybody, every small-business person who wants to start a business. The rent, and the up-fit, and the mortgages, and the lists on each contract, the riders, are huge now. To start a business your overhead costs are astronomical. They say it should take about three years to start a small business, but you can't do that on Ninth Street now because there are these selfish landlords who are just waiting to make a killing. And some of them are from out of town. Everybody thinks they're going to make a killing."
Tom agrees. "I think the rent structure has made it tougher for small businesses, and businesses in general. There were no big-box retailers when we started. The landscape for small businesses is much tougher now, no matter what you're doing. Most of what you see for small businesses are small restaurants and bars, because that's a place where people can still make a go of that. But in most other retail areas it's really tough. And we've certainly felt that ourselves."
One advantage they do have, Tom says, is the community that has supported them for 30 years: "This really is a great community for an independent bookstore. The local neighborhood, the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood, Trinity Park, the resurgence that's going on downtown, with more people living in the center of the city. That's really helping us."
"There was a real mushrooming of local media in the early '80s, all these print fanzines, bands. We were able to piggyback on the whole rock 'n' roll scene. And the area's always been great for local authors and poets," John says. "We've just been very lucky."
The two owners of the Regulator have weathered huge changes, both in the print industry and in Durham itself, but they're confident that there will always be a place for them on Ninth Street. "I heard somebody who owns a chain of bookstores once say that people who run bookstores are in the entertainment business," Tom says. "And I didn't respond. But I think we're in the curiosity business. If people are curious about the world, they're going to read books, because you really can't dig into something any other way."
He continues, "I think a lot of people are afraid to be curious these days. Like they're afraid of what they're going to find out: 'The world's becoming a darker place, I don't want to know about it.' I think we've gone through a time where people felt like that, but now I think that people are starting to get curious again. I think that as long as people are curious, we'll be OK."
INVITATION TO A CELEBRATION
It wouldn't be an anniversary without a party. The co-owners of the Regulator Bookshop, Tom Campbell and John Valentine, will celebrate 30 years of Regulating on Saturday, Dec. 2, from 8 p.m. to midnight. In addition to visits from numerous local authors, there will be great food, great drink, happy memories, jazz music and birthday cake. And, the store tells us, we're all invited:
What has kept this independent, improbable bookstore alive and well all these years? You have! We hope our anniversary party will be a big thank you to the wonderful community that continues to support our endeavors here at 720 Ninth Street. Please come celebrate with us!
More information on the party, as well as highlights and memories from 30 years of the Regulator, can be found on the store's Web site, www.regulatorbookshop.com.