Squeaky wooden floors. Yellow walls. Curling, hand-lettered signs on tall shelves. Red and white striped awnings. Jazz playing in the background. An enveloping, powerful, impossible-to-describe yet instantly familiar aroma of books. For anyone who ever set foot during the Intimate Bookshop’s long presence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, those things embodied not only the Intimate itself, but the essence of what a bookshop should be.
However, my love for the place started not in Chapel Hill but in Charlotte, and not on a bustling college-town main drag, but in a glossy new shopping mall.
In 1984, I was a directionless recent graduate of the University of North Carolina with vaguely bookish interests. I had recently returned to Charlotte, my hometown and as was often the case when I couldn’t think of another place to be, I headed to the Intimate Bookshop in SouthPark Mall. Though I had spent considerable time at the store’s original and renowned Chapel Hill location on Franklin Street, I had practically grown up with the SouthPark store. I didn’t even know another Intimate Bookshop existed until I wandered past it during my first year of college. Once inside, I found the same squeaky floors and yellow walls, the same tall shelves I had always loved, but now with a tweedy college-town glamour that girls like me found utterly irresistible. I was instantly homesick no longer, and ready to investigate shelves intriguingly labeled “Semiotics” and “Eastern Religions.”
When I returned to Charlotte, now homesick for Chapel Hill, the Intimate beckoned yet again and this time with a “Now Hiring” sign in the window. In short order I was working the evening shift in the upstairs Paperback Gallery.
I was hired by Barbara Svenson, who along with her husband Eric, had managed the store since its opening in 1970. They were close friends with and associates of owner Wallace Kuralt (brother of the famous Charles) who with his wife, Brenda, had purchased the Chapel Hill store in 1965 from Paul Smith, its second owner. The Svensons lived in the Kuralt family’s former home—a gracious, generously porched and large-lawned house at which the Svensons hosted staff parties. But here the story of my connection with the Intimate Bookshop ends. I’m not sure I was a terribly valuable or efficient employee, though to this day I can still hum the greatest hits of Bix Beiderbecke. I once absent-mindedly bagged a large pile of assigned summer reading books for a boy without ringing them up and he, being no dummy, walked right out of the store with them. I console myself with imagining that he has since become a respected scholar who traces his passion for literature to the kindly idiot who threw free books at him one day.
During my time at the Intimate in the mid-1980s, Wallace Kuralt presided over a small chain of stores throughout North Carolina worth over ten million dollars. By the early 1990s the chain grew to nine or twelve (reports vary), including a store in Atlanta. In each, he sought to preserve the original store’s college town minimalist yet well-loved aesthetic and atmosphere. The stores stocked books and pretty much only books—perhaps a few calendars and tote bags crept in. Inventory reflected the interests of the population it served: literature, poetry, and cookbooks in Chapel Hill while business books and travel guides sold well in Charlotte. However, the staff of every store took special pride in being able to finding any book for any customer, and I have vivid memories of the large, packed special order shelves behind the main cash register. And the only database relied upon was the encyclopedic knowledge of long-time staff members, and if that failed, the vast, unflagging memory of Wallace Kuralt himself.
Kuralt’s love of and belief in books, his unwavering integrity, and genial presence were legendary throughout his decades of association with the Intimate, and it his long tenure with the store that’s probably most remembered about the Intimate Bookshop today. In the 1990s, the Intimate faced the same pressures all independent booksellers did as big-box chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders rapidly expanded. The Intimate’s well-worn minimalism suffered in comparison to sleek wood-paneled stores with cafés and leather chairs. Most of all, along with other independent booksellers, the Intimate could not match the deeply discounted prices and enormous inventory of the large chains. In addition, fire destroyed the Chapel Hill store in 1992, and Kuralt’s decision to not only rebuild but expand placed even greater financial strain on the business. In 1998, the Intimate Bookshop left its Franklin Street location, and in 1999, the last location closed. “The end of an era,” read headlines across North Carolina, and it was not an exaggeration.
The business did not go down without a fight. Kuralt spent years protesting what he saw as the big chains’ (and burgeoning online booksellers’) unfair advantages and tactics. In 1994, he sued the chains, citing their collusion with publishers and distributors to cut prices, considering it his mission to represent independent bookstores everywhere suffering his same plight. Kuralt pursued his quest even after the Intimate went under. In fact, facing ill health, Kuralt even recorded his deposition in case he died before the case was settled. Ultimately, Kuralt and the Intimate lost their fight in 2003 when the case was dismissed, just a month before Kuralt’s death. One has to wonder how he would feel about the similar fate of many big-box stores, brought down by the very same tactics and changing business models decried by Kuralt.
But even before Wallace Kuralt’s decades with the Intimate, the store had been deeply connected, even fundamental, to North Carolina’s intellectual history, especially the radical literary and political fervor of the 1930s and 40s.
In 1931, Hickory native Milton “Ab” Abernethy, expelled from North Carolina State University (then called State College) for writing leftist editorials in the student newspaper, enrolled in a desultory fashion at the University of North Carolina. He quickly associated himself with other campus radicals, and with his friend Anthony Buttitta founded a literary journal, Contempo, dedicated to publishing avant garde and experimental writers from the United States and abroad. Though short-lived and run on an almost impossibly small budget, in its three years of existence Contempo published new work from many of the early twentieth century’s most notable writers and thinkers including James Joyce (to whom an entire issue was devoted in 1934), William Faulkner, Hilda Doolittle (HD), T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Luigi Pirandello, and many more.
At the same time, Abernethy (known universally as simply “Ab”) opened an ad hoc bookshop in his boarding house room. Supplied by books from Paul Green (founder of the Carolina Playmakers) and Phillips Russell, plus any other books he could beg, borrow, or otherwise appropriate. In 1931, advertised the opening of his new store in Contempo:
Not many people know of the existence of such an agency as The Intimate Bookshop. [It is] a place where one can read without cost and buy with regular discount any book from The Death of the Gods to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a place one goes for a quiet hour or so to browse about books that seem to stick his imagination, feel the intimate and personal touch of writers that lived to live, literature move before him as a vital and dynamic force rather than as a support for the dust of the ages. [sic]
In Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes from the Other Side of the Tracks, writer, teacher, and long-time Chapel Hill resident Daphne Athas describes the Intimate Bookshop at that period as “the guts of the town’s intellectual life,” and Abernethy himself as the “gatekeeper to the town’s imagination.”
The store quickly grew in both size and reputation, finally settling in its first Franklin Street location by 1933. Abernethy was known for allowing people who didn’t want to leave to stay in the store overnight, and just locking them in until the next morning. When famous radicals and intellectuals came to town, most notably Langston Hughes and William Faulkner in 1931, they all spent time at the Intimate. And even more important, Abernethy operated a small printing press (supposedly donated by a Communist operative) in a back storeroom on which he published Contempo as well as material for other radical campus groups and anyone else he thought needed help.
It was just these sorts of associations and activities that eventually landed Abernethy in trouble in the 1950s. Even though Contempo had long since ceased publication, and the Intimate Bookshop had been sold in 1950, his radical reputation placed him and other Chapel Hill activists and intellectual in direct conflict with the tense political realities of the time. In 1953, Abernethy faced a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on his alleged Communist past. After hours of hostile questioning, including bizarrely detailed testimony about the exact placement of that dangerous printing press and minute-by-minute accounts of who had entered or left the store nearly two decades before, Abernethy was cleared. However, the ordeal and particularly the ugly reaction of many Chapel Hill residents soured Abernethy on his longtime home, and he and his family left. He also left both bookselling and politics behind, and finished his career as a successful stockbroker in New York and Chapel Hill property owner. At the time of his death in 1991, the Intimate Bookshop was still a fixture in Chapel Hill and across North Carolina, but its radical beginnings were forgotten by most.
I like to think that the Intimate Bookshop’s thrilling and peculiar past still lived in those squeaky floors, even as it faded from memory. When Wallace Kuralt, a UNC graduate, returned to Chapel Hill in 1960 after being discharged from the Army, the Intimate Bookshop was the first business to give him a job. Newspaper stories about the Intimate’s closing and every one of Kuralt’s obituaries describe his dedication to fostering a love of books, and his belief that books should be affordable and accessible to all. Just as Ab Abernethy envisioned in 1931.
Author's note: Though the last page may have turned on the Intimate Bookshop’s story, independent bookstores still thrive all across North Carolina. Discover them here here, and when you visit, tell them hello from Wallace and Ab. Many thanks to Susan Newrock of the Chapel Hill Historical Society for her help in researching this story.
SP Rankin is North Carolina writer and graphic designer. In a bygone era, she received a BA from the University of North Carolina, and more recently a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte. SP loves talking and writing about books and the reading life, and a number of other things you’re probably not all that interested in and who could blame you? Her most recent book, Common Threads: Gastonia and Gaston County Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, was published in 2014.