Not Just Paper

In August 2018, as the dog days of summer waned into a stretch without holidays, a supply store in downtown Durham found something to celebrate: National Toilet Paper Day.

“It is one of those things we sometimes take for granted, until we can’t find any,” the store wrote in a Facebook post. “Next time you’re running low, stop by.”

Indeed, two years later, at the height of 2020’s toilet paper panic, the store, Not Just Paper, was the only place in town with the goods.

Not Just Paper’s reliable TP supply came from Brame, its Durham-based parent company. During the first few months of the pandemic, Brame—which has six distribution sites in North Carolina and Virginia but only one retail location, Not Just Paper—benefited from a near century’s worth of connections: its founder, R.L. Brame, started building relationships with area paper mills in the 1920s. The company, which is still helmed by the Brame family, turns 100 this year.

True to its name, though, Not Just Paper, which sells a myriad of school, office, food service, and cleaning materials, had more than just toilet paper in its inventory of early pandemic essentials.

Some items were already on the shelves—namely, things like whiteboards, spelling games, and gold star stickers—and others were stocked up per request.

“You had parents and grandparents all over the place who wanted school desks,” says David Matthews, a Brame branch manager who oversees Not Just Paper. “So we started selling desks.”

Per pleas from local restaurant owners, the store also began supplying a wider variety of to-go packaging. (It still has a surplus of takeout boxes that say “Best Chicken,” which one non-chicken-oriented purveyor requested for dimensional reasons and gladly purchased while options were limited.)

According to Brame lore, R.L. Brame named the company as such because “first, it was his name; and second, he wasn’t sure what other products the company would eventually offer to meet his customers’ needs.”

At the also-nebulously-named Not Just Paper, the latter point has remained a tenet of the model: community needs drive product changes. Those needs, like upping toilet paper counts, are sometimes broad. But many are neighborhood related or individual—and they aren’t typically crisis-induced.

During its first decade in business, Not Just Paper, which was founded in 1989, mostly stuck to school supplies, Matthews tells me. We’re sitting with his assistant, Carissa Starks, in an office that straddles the store’s two sections. The front of the store, which Starks helms, is largely stocked with educational materials; the back, Matthews’s turf, opens into a 60,000-square-foot warehouse.

Matthews joined the Not Just Paper staff 15 years ago, around the time the downtown Durham restaurant scene was heating up. Budding food businesses needed a place to buy things like packaging and piping tips in small quantities, so the store began stocking them.

Then people started asking for party supplies. There wasn’t a party store within a 10-mile radius of downtown. Staff outfitted the front section of the store with balloons, streamers, and birthday banners.

Both Matthews and Starks came to Not Just Paper after working positions at Walmart. They’re a lot happier here, they say, and I believe it. They frequently talk over each other, racing to relay the same colorful tidbits: Have I heard about Brame’s cameo in the movie Bull Durham, where the company’s name can be seen plastered on a prominent ball-field billboard? Do I know about the store’s sea turtle mascot?

When I ask them if the store has competition, they say “Amazon” unanimously, and when I ask for their thoughts on the state of things for small businesses in a post-pandemic Durham, Starks mentions that the owner of a nearby business sometimes stops by so they can “cry together.”

Not Just Paper is old-school. The day before our conversation, Matthews says, a Not Just Paper sales associate was riding around town with a car full of educational supplies, showcasing products door-to-door at schools.

The store doesn’t have its own website, so, in Starks’s words, “no one really knows what’s in here.”

Still, there’s value in hands-on, community-oriented customer service, she notes. Last weekend, for instance, Not Just Paper hosted its back-to-school teacher bash, an annual event that offers area educators a 20 percent discount on everything in the store.

Also, the internet doesn’t stock everything.

It’s Not Just Paper: How an Old-School Supply Store Evolves to Meet Community Needs

As a teenager, like R.L. Brame, I started a business and named it after myself. Unlike R.L. Brame, I did not have the foresight to keep branding vague, and so it remained “Lena’s Lunchbox” after I went on to sell cakes, not lunch food. All of my cakes were packaged in pink pastry boxes I bought at Not Just Paper. The boxes cost around 30¢ each and came in every size imaginable.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., for college, I couldn’t find a single place to buy those cake boxes, either in person or online, in quantities under 100. So I returned to Not Just Paper, transporting them back on my lap during MegaBus trips.

There are things we sometimes take for granted until we can’t find them: toilet paper, cake boxes, stores like Not Just Paper.

During my conversation with Matthews and Starks, I learned that Not Just Paper began stocking pink pastry boxes 15 years ago at the behest of a single customer, LeAne Boksleitner, who was in the early stages of her own home baking business at the time.

“I would meet her about halfway between here and Wake Forest so she wouldn’t have to drive so far,” Matthews says. “People probably thought we were doing a drug deal—I was handing her boxes, she would give me money. She got like $20 of stuff per week.”

Now, Matthews says, Boksleitner has a brick-and-mortar bakery on Capitol Boulevard “with probably as many employees as we’ve got.”

“You got to see the whole transformation,” I say.

“You asked me why I’m here,” he says. “That’s why.”

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