So Long, And Thanks for All the Books

A fond farewell to Wallace Kuralt, propietor of the Intimate Bookshop, who went down fighting. His literary empire grew to eight stores, but eventually he had to close every location due to being unable to compete with the huge chains and online retailers who get sweetheart deals with book wholesalers. He took up the fight on behalf of all independent booksellers.

I didn't know him personally, but he had a profound impact on me. When I was in elementary school, my mother had a store downtown (where Pepper's is now). Along with the Varsity Theatre, the Intimate was my main afterschool program. I went there daily, took one of the many small chairs scatterred throughout the children's section, and read everything I could get my hands on. My favorite nook (a 2-foot wide space between two shelves) was dubbed "Ruby's corner" by the staff.

I just want to thank Mr. Kuralt for providing this opportunity for me and countless other Chapel Hillians to read to our hearts delight.




I agree with your critique of Intimate when it is applied to its last days. But in 1976? As I recall, in 1976 Intimate *was* the big bookstore chain. It was very well stocked, and apparently well-run. In the 70's, many small bookstores in NC worried that an Intimate would open in their mall or shopping center, and that they would not be able to compete. I found it ironic when Kurault sued. He could have found himself on the defendent's side once upon a time, if his failed competitors had felt as he did.

Yet, I miss the Intimate that once was. I tried to do business there in its last year, but could never find anything I looked for. There were some good open mike events even up to the end at the Franklin store, and I attended a Clyde Edgerton reading at the Eastgate store.

It is easy to jump to conclusions about why a business fails. Whatever the real reason--or more likely the combination of reasons--when the death spiral begins, it is hard to stop.

I'm sorry CH does not have the Intimate anymore. It was a good fit for this type of community and it belonged in its prominent spot on Franklin St. When we moved here, the Intimate sent the message that we were in the middle of a happening University community.

The folks at Branch's (?) on Elliott seem to be doing their best to compete with the megas. They get about a 90% market share from our household and impress me more and more every time I go in.

I'm sorry that Mr. Kurault has died, but I'm afraid I can't get myself to mourn the Intimate very much.

I'm glad the bookstore afforded a place for people like Ruby to hang out. And while the history books I've read tell me that it was an important meeting place during the civil rights and Vietnam eras, it was a pitiful excuse for a bookstore, especially in a town like Chapel Hill, which deserved far better.

I first visited the Intimate around 1978 as a sales rep for a weird sort of consortium of small presses. What struck me was Mr. Kurault's frank admission that he would not pay my company for at least 120 days, at least double the accepted time. Apparently the Intimate never pulled itself out of the hole enough to actually pay publishers and get books. The Intimate never had a decent inventory, even in its last, incredibly beautiful store in Eastgate. (BTW I will never patronize Waldenbooks at University Mall since the mall kicked the Intimate out in order to put a chain bookstore in.) Rather than having good books, the Intimate was primarily filled with remainders.

Kurault seemed to spend his energies developing computer software (a notorious expense) for his store and suing major publishers for not giving independent bookstores the same kinds of discounts they gave large chains. I suspect that he never doubted or tried to improve his own ways of selling and preferred to blame publishers for his woes. Two points that stand out in my mind:

1. Even when he had a spectacular place for a coffee shop in Eastgate (upstairs where he put paperbacks), he never created one. I think there is no excuse for this. Every since Kramerbooks - a small local chain in Wash DC - opened Kramerbooks And Afterwards, the first bookstore+cafe in DC in 1976, the writing has been on the wall: bookselling, like all retailing, has to be entertaining. If I want information, I'll go to the library or the Internet or catalogs. Independent booksellers resisted this change and many have gone out of business. In 1976 Barnes and Noble was located in two stores on 5th Avenue in NYC, but they figured out how to market and grow. Kurault clearly resisted marketing and shrank. Notice that Branch's has coffee; the Regulator has outsourced coffee; Quail Ridge doesn't have it, but it creates excitement in other ways: the Intimate was boring.

2. The other thing I remember is an article in the Chapel Hill Newspaper after the Intimate finally folded. Maybe it was because the business was gone, but it was actually a good piece of reporting, not a puff-piece. The reporter had interviewed the Intimate's staff (this was at Eastgate) and had found that Kurault apparently didn't even know their names. But the most damaging news, from a business point of view, was that the staff was apparently not allowed or encouraged (I forget which) to create in-store events. In-store events, particularly author reading, are another major component of retail entertainment. (All surviving local independents of any note do that.) (The Intimate had author reading but not many and apparently all initiated top-down or externally.)

Franklin Street sorely misses a bookstore, even a poor one. But our area is blessed with some wonderful bookstores. The best, IMHO, are the Bulls Head and the Gothic, closely followed by the Regulator and Quail Ridge, and there are many more good bookstores. As for community, I think more of us (myself included) should hang out at the Internationalist.


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