I Went to Durham and Discovered My Happy Place (Surprise, It’s a Bookstore)

Whenever I go on vacation, I like to buy a book that will remind me of the trip (I have plans for a post on that soon). This trip to Durham was not a vacation in the same way that running after the ice cream truck isn’t a workout (not that I would know anything about working out). However, I still wanted to get a sense of the town, and there’s no better way for me to do that than through a “bookstore tasting.”

My partner is interviewing for medical residency positions, and I’m tagging along on some of his trips to cities I haven’t already visited. We have to live wherever he matches for 4-5 years, so it’s in my best interest to figure out the places I love and hate. While he goes on his stressful, boring dinners and interview days, I’m pretty much left on my own to explore the town, and when I’m left to my own devices, I usually seek out two things: indie coffee and indie books. I’m like a hipster heat-seeking missile.

I didn’t know what to expect in Durham, except that I read online about the six bookstores. SIX BOOKSTORES. That might be more than all the bookstores in Philly (I joke, but…not really. Our bookstore scene is serviceable, but it isn’t the strongest). I only had one day to shop, so I decided to triage (sorry, cute bookstores twenty minutes outside of town, maybe next time).

After I dropped my partner off at the medical center, I decided to head in the general direction of caffeine, since it was still too early for bookstores (too early for all decent people, really). The online anarchic collective known as Yelp seemed to recommend a place called The Mad Hatter, and it met my extremely rigorous criteria (a parking lot and the promise of baked goods).


The outdoor space would have been great in a few hours once it warmed up, but I wanted to go inside, acquire legal addictive stimulants, and get some work done.


Okay, here’s something you might need to know about me in order to understand how much I loved this coffee shop– I love light. I am at least 50% houseplant. When my partner and I went shopping for apartments, I campaigned hard for the tiny one-bedroom with a pillar in the middle of the living room and side windows that would have let me reach out and hand the tenants of the apartment across the street a newspaper. Its sole redeeming quality: one whole (street-facing) wall was a semicircular window. My argument– “It would be like living in a clock tower!”– fell on deaf ears.

With that background information, you can understand why I fell in love with this cafe. It also serves breakfast and lunch, so you get the spaciousness of a diner (although by the time I left at 10:30, it was filled to capacity) with the “I think I’ll have another coffee and sit for 2 more hours” autonomy of a cafe. I didn’t get to sit in those window booths, but they looked seriously comfy. An introvert’s dream.

Full disclosure: the baked goods I tried (cookie and brownie) were mediocre at best. The coffee was great though. It’s possible I just didn’t order the right things– their cakes looked great. When I came back later that afternoon (yup, no shame), a girl and her mother were sharing a 5-layer (?!?!?!) chocolate cake that positively glistened in the afternoon light. Slurp.

Once all the night-owls had dragged themselves out of bed and opened their bookstores, I went to the first of three shops I had on my itinerary for that day: The Regulator Bookshop.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Okay, I can’t build any more narrative tension: this place is the bomb. They have literally everything, but it’s a carefully curated everything.

Exhibits A – Z below:


Math and Science section title




I know most bookstores carry the “best of” series, but this store’s presentation was the best! Photo blurry with excitement.


The poetry section was very solid: nationally known writers (Doty, Carson) hanging out with local ones.


A zine and literary magazine corner! Be still, my heart!


Reading couches! Yes please.

Based on my shaky, amateurish photography, I’m sure you can tell that I was ecstatic to have found a bookstore that hit just the right notes for me. The selection was a perfect blend of familiar (“Hey, I’ve heard of that! I’ve been meaning to read it…”) and totally new (“Chuck Palahniuk has a coloring book??”). I even got a 10% k-12 educator discount on my entire purchase!

Neither of the other two bookstores I visited (Books Do Furnish a Room and the Duke University bookstore) lived up to The Regulator, but that’s part of the fun of traveling– I never know what I’ll find!

With all the space I’d carefully left in my carry on now occupied by 10 new books, 2 cards created by local artists, and a notebook (all purchased at The Regulator), I flew home on Saturday filled with excitement for my next trip. I’m headed to Cleveland and Kansas City in the next couple of months, and I’ll let you know my best bookish finds there, too! Please let me know if you have any suggestions for bookish things to do in those cities.

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