Colleges still invest in their libraries, which signal the institution's reverence for knowledge and commitment to learning. Increasingly, they expect their bookstores to turn a profit, like airport swag concessions.
The "bookstore" I entered Friday was handsome, but with the charm and character of a concourse souvenir shop offering grab-and-go beverages, snacks and flocks of branded apparel. Not a single book in sight.
Past the $69 technical fabric long-sleeve tees, a stairway led down to the textbook department, where a shoulder-high run of shelves displayed current titles along one wall. A large table featured remainders. In back was the textbook corral, looking like the airport service counter where you go to report lost luggage.
I spied a sole freestanding bookcase. Without the sign noting faculty publications on one side and books by alumni authors on the other, it would have been at home in a driveway on the last day of a garage sale.
Among the alumni books, Karen Yamashita's I HOTEL stood out from the clutter because its spine is about three inches wide, allowing it to stand upright without supporting volumes. Marathoner Hal Higdon's On the Run from Dogs and People, originally published in 1971, had fallen on its side atop some books as thin as Temperance pamphlets. There were ample copies of a thriller penned by college trustee Larry Perlman, the only title faced out.
But I spotted nothing from Jane Hamilton, Bonnie Nadzam, Suzanne Lebsock, Kai Bird, TJ Stiles, Jack El-Hai, Kao Kalia Yang, Lila Abu-Lughod, James Loewen or Brian Freeman. Or, yes, me. Perhaps they had sold out, but more likely, store management has given up trying.
I get that college bookstores are not in the business of selling trade books to alumni who visit campus once year. (The store does invite authors to sell their books through the store registers for a few hours at reunion.) Nor are they in the business of flattering our egos. But published writers give evidence of the school's quality, and that list of authors exhibits an interesting range of accomplishments.
The textbook business is changing. Students have options besides the campus store, with rentals and online purchasing. As revenues decline, college CFOs have options, too, with outfits like Follett and Barnes & Noble College ready to take the stores off their hands.
Varney's Book Store, a 126-year-old Kansas institution, has announced it will close all its stores at the end of the month. Its revenue had dropped severely, due to the loss of the K-State Union Bookstore contract to Follett and to online competition. On July 1, University of North Carolina turns over its student store to Barnes & Noble College, which runs more than 700 outsourced stores.
In March, a University of California Irvine official said why the school was considering outsourcing its store, The Hill:
"We’ve remodeled the store, we’ve rebranded, improved our web presence, opened up the Hillside Lounge and partnered with Starbucks, but sales just aren’t keeping pace. The recommendations we followed haven’t changed much in terms of profitability. Either we look for someone to do this more efficiently, or we have to raise prices at The Hill above market standards.”
Given these realities, I won't presume to tell colleges not to privatize their stores, but I will offer a caution.
Look at the bookstore portals here. Both companies use templates designed to sell textbooks, supplies and trend merchandise. There's no way to order the new Richard Russo or to know it's on the shelf in the physical store.
Follett clients K-State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Boston College and Arizona State sites are distinguishable from each other only by the logo in the upper corner—and whether the Summer Trends module portrays stock photo students or pictures of college logoware. Barnes & Noble College applies school colors to the same layout for Carleton, Wellesley, Eastern New Mexico, Georgia Tech and Dunwoody College of Technology.
Encountering these college stores online and on-floor, you'd be hard-pressed to discern these institutions as places that celebrate learning and literacy.
Fortunately, though, Northfield has a great new bookstore in town called Content, owned and staffed by Carleton grads. I wonder if those other corporatized college towns will be as lucky.