Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.

In stores around Durham, aisles usually well-diversified with toilet paper brands endorsed by happy bear families and cherubic mascots are barren. A sign above the depleted shelves at the Target on 15/501 declares, “Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of toilet paper, flushable wipes and facial tissue to 1 each per guest.”  

These are dire times. One unanticipated consequence of the coronavirus crisis is a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, as well as tissues and (now-infamous) flushable wipes.  It’s not just Target. The shelves echo emptiness at Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods and just about any other Durham store that sells it.

The void in the home-goods aisles has made room for Durhamites to step in. Listservs, Facebook groups, and Instagram posts show how the community has come together to help people cope with the toilet paper turmoil. 

On one Durham email thread, a woman offered up her own recent shipment from Who Gives A Crap, a specialty retailer that sells a version said to be 100% recycled.  She emphasized that she was not amassing a supply of the paper (which has become a bit of a taboo, particularly in community-minded Durham), but was simply a long-time subscriber to the service. The woman, ironically enough, did seem to give a crap: Her goal was to donate toilet paper to groups that may have a harder time obtaining it during the COVID-19 crisis such as the elderly or immunocompromised. 

Sellers has heard some horror stories of stockpiling. 

“Harris Teeter restocks [toilet paper] at 6:30 a.m.,” he says, “and people are waiting in line until they run out.”

He is still scratching his head to understand the hoarding culture. His theory is that toilet paper is tangible.

“You can’t see this virus but you can see the toilet paper,” he says. Leaving a store with four 12-packs of Charmin or Angel Soft, in the face of mounting unpredictability, feels productive. 

People seem to crave this feeling. Throughout the county, there is a dull quiet. Workplaces are closed, stores are shuttered. People are seeking control – so they stock their pantries, and they fill linen closets, with toilet paper. 

A coping mechanism, “that’s probably what it is,” Sellers says. “Like, this gives me a piece of anchoring during this completely uncertain time.”

David Matthews, the branch manager of Not Just Paper, an office and school supply store on Main Street, is also trying to understand the obsession. He agrees that it’s less about the use and more about the preparation. When expecting a child, this concept is called nesting – the urge to create a comfy space for the new baby. When expecting a pandemic, it’s about preparing the nest for an unclear future.

“People are unfamiliar with what all these stay-in-place orders mean and we feel insecure,” he says. “Word got out that you have to have your basic supplies and when you think about it, (toilet paper) is a basic supply people take for granted.”

He thinks there’s a bit of groupthink, too. “It gets your attention when you see the shelves empty.” Everyone is wondering why their friends and neighbors are stocking up, but don’t want to be the ones caught empty-handed. 

People have traveled far, from Rocky Mount and Jackson County, to visit his store. So he is loudly marketing their stash: a sign out front boasts, “We have toilet paper!”

“Supply and demand,” he points out. “We have it; other people don’t.” 

Not Just Paper is one of the many retailers that has taken to establishing a limit per customer, in an effort to flatten the curve on stockpiling. “I want to make sure there’s enough for everyone,” Matthews explains. 

At the end of the day, Matthews isn’t worrying about the psychology behind the hoarding. Like Sellers and the listserv volunteers, he just wants customers to know he can help. And while they’re not just paper – they do have plenty of it. 

And finally, some discouraging news for those who have not been so lucky in their bathroom stashing and have attempted to get creative. Flushable wipes, which are likewise beginning to sell out (much to the chagrin of city officials) are meant to serve as a TP alternative and dissolve in the sewer. Indeed, Cottonelle, the self-ascribed “No. 1 Flushable Wipe Brand among national flushable wipes brands,” claims to begin this dissolving process right after flushing. 

The city of Durham begs to differ. 

“Wipes are not flushable — no matter what the ads want us to believe!” their Instagram, @cityofdurhamnc, posted recently. The post goes on to implore residents to discontinue use of the products, which can clog home plumbing or sewer lines. It sums up the warning by urging followers to “#protectyourpipes,” perhaps in a wink to the respiratory pandemic causing the surge in stocking. 


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