Ninth Street, Always Ninth Street

Ninth Street in the 1980s was like a boomtown, or maybe boom village. The rents were cheap, the neighborhoods were friendly and young, and West Durham, with its tolerant, open arms, was welcoming everyone. Especially everyone with good food or a good idea.

Frank, Mo, and Michael were opening the Ninth Street Bakery; Lex and Ann were opening Wellspring grocery; Nell had an idea for a sandwich shop; Jean Claude was doing his Bread and Board Café; Carol and Debby were stocking up Vaguely Reminiscent, a trendy gift-and-clothing shop; and Tom Campbell ’70, Helen Whiting ’74, and I were peddling enlightenment at the Regulator.

Helen said it best during one of our expansions: “Gosh, I guess we’re not just playing at running a bookstore now!” Helen managed our textbooks, edited our newsletters, and knew every good mystery or cookbook ever written. We filled the store each month with First Tuesday Poetry readings. During the summer, East Campus refugees found their way to our door, Duke Young Writers’ Camp had readings, and American Dance Festival kids checked out the local scene, crowding the magazine room.

Local school book fairs started populating the fall calendar. Just as Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain hit the best-seller lists, he asked us to set up an in-school event at his daughter’s school. The pair sat in armchairs in the school’s auditorium stage for a tender, very personal shared reading.

Ninth Street was eclectic and vibrant and the Regulator had its front door wide open to the winds. We were the first place south of Washington to carry McSweeney’s, Wet magazine from Los Angeles, and the New York Rocker, and one of three places in Durham to carry the Sunday New York Times. High-school kids from Raleigh and Chapel Hill brought us their homemade, DIY zines. Print media were alive and well. Eager local authors, bands, and poets were always dropping by posting fliers.

Lee Smith, Hillsborough’s loyal local-lit champion, called us a “funky hot spot” in Entertainment Weekly’s annual awards issue, naming us to its bookstore honor roll. Duke basketball players showed up each September and January to buy textbooks. I remember seeing Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Nolan Smith, the Plumlees, and Wojo at the front counter with their syllabuses. Years later Jon Scheyer picked up his required reading, and the next month he won the national championship. We were fans.

Our children were everywhere. Ninth Street always had that incubator feel and sensitivity. Owners were onsite; we were the folks behind the counters, unlocking the front doors and taking out the trash. Our families joined us. One snowy afternoon, no school of course, our oldest daughters went sledding down the alley next to our building.

Before school drop-off, I used to bring my kids to work and then propped open the front door. They had their favorite books and spaces in the kids’ section. They loved rolling the shelving carts in loops around the store. One daughter collected all the Magic Tree House books; the other couldn’t wait for the next Sarah Dessen, Chapel Hill’s New York Times best-selling writer.

I spent several interesting overnights in a sleeping bag on the back sofa in the store so I could be there in the morning to sell the local papers and The New York Times to winter wanderers. We were a destination, and nothing was better than coffee and a muffin from down the street, the local paper, and a morning off the clock in a bookstore.

The wonderfully wild, unpredictable height in the confluence of family, Durham, Ninth Street, and the Regulator occurred when the street and store turned into Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. For the midnight releases of the final four books in the magical, childhood-embracing Harry Potter series, West Durham was transformed. Costumes, games, music, and the anticipation of reading filled us all.

That was the best: crowds of families greeting each other, laughter, toddlers rubbing their eyes trying to stay awake, stacks of the newest adventure by the front counter, and ten-year-old boys and girls ready for their first all-nighter.


John Valentine ’71, M.Ed., ’74 is co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop on Durham’s Ninth Street. He lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Ann Bushyhead ’73.

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