Here’s some great news for readers, writers, and book lovers everywhere: book stores in America are making a comeback. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent book sellers rose by 35%, and in 2018 many of those book sellers are thriving, despite competition from big name sellers like Amazon. The reason for that, according to one Harvard researcher, is that people still value what he calls the three C’s of independence bookselling: community, curation, and convening. Lucky for Durham, The Regulator Bookshop has all of these things in spades.
Since 1976, when original owners Tom Campbell and John Valentine opened the store, The Regulator has been all about fostering and contributing to its community. Named after a group of North Carolinians who led a rebellion against colonial officials in the late 1760’s, The Regulator Bookshop has always welcomed subversive attitudes, progressive leaning views, and most importantly, a healthy exchange of ideas. When the time came for Tom and John to give up the reins to the business, they didn’t like the idea of selling the shop to strangers. They wanted the store to remain rooted in the tradition they began over forty years ago. That’s where Elliot and Wander come in.
Wander has been with the store for twenty-eight years, Elliot for nearly twenty. The store has been a huge part of Elliot’s life since childhood - he worked at the store right after college, biking to work every day, and recalls loving those years and The Regulator’s role in them. Wander, too, has a deep investment in the store. He has long loved bookselling because it is such a unique kind of business, one that deals with intellectual property and ideas, and even more exciting, one that involves daily conversations about those ideas. Tom and John felt that selling the store to two long-time employees who understand its role in the community would make it possible to keep The Regulator, The Regulator. Better yet, Elliott and Wander have had a great working chemistry since the beginning. From those early years at The Regulator, they remember a lot of laughter and a lot of musing about what they’d do if the store was their own. Fast forward twenty years (give or take) and this pair is positioning itself to not only maintain and nurture the legacy of Durham’s favorite bookshop, but also to build upon that legacy.
In the short month that they’ve been owners, Elliot and Wander have already reinvigorated the shop by rearranging the flow of the space and adding a mural in the children’s section. Elliot’s wife Gina played a huge role in curating the children’s book selection, focusing in particular on providing a better representation of diversity. She also plans to create a “Wall of Readers” on the wall next to the comfy children’s section couches, an idea inspired by their one-time neighbor McDonald’s Drugstore, whose owners once posted local children’s photos near their beloved soda fountain. As Wander’s wife Lauren has also played a big role in designing the shop, the renovation has indeed been a family affair. Looking forward, Elliot and Wander hope to bring more diversity into the store, both in terms of the book selection and the clientele. And, because The Regulator was a community space before there were a lot of community spaces in Durham, they are redesigning the downstairs portion of the store to really serve that community, making it a welcoming area for readings, book groups, and gatherings. One thing that won’t change at The Regulator, except perhaps that it will be even more carefully carried out, is the curation of indie reads and offbeat books from small presses like Open Letter Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, and the New York Review of Books. You can also still expect to find magazines and periodicals with a progressive edge, like Mother Jones and N+1. The Regulator certainly carries all the most recent bestsellers, but they are most interested in supporting small presses and serving the eclectic community of Durham readers.
If you’re on Ninth Street, stop by The Regulator, say hello, and get to know its new owners. In the meantime, here are the Cliffnotes:
On Elliot’s bedside table right now is the galley copy of Michael Ondaatje's most recent novel, Warlight, as well as a never-before-soon-to-be-published book by Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon, in which Hurston tells the tale of the last known person to survive the transatlantic slave trade, a man named Cudjo Lewis. Wander is enjoying Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair, a novel spanning three generations and seven decades in the lives of one family.
Wander and Elliot expect to spend much of their next six months at The Regulator, hoping to settle in to a more relaxed rhythm by August or September. In the moments when they’re not at the shop, though, Wander might be spending time on his translation work (English to Dutch), and Elliot is likely playing with his two young boys, ages three and five.
Tools of the trade they can’t live without (besides books)? Coffee, wine, and the American Booksellers Association.