Sunday, September 2, 2012

my college bookstore r.i.p.

The other day I called on my friend Sandi Torkildson at Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison.  They’ve just moved into a gorgeous new space, proving that successful independent booksellers still know how to be nimble and to think big.  Sandi and her staff are re-inventing the iconic feminist bookshop as a general new and used trade store serving the downtown community.  (Without, she is quick to add, losing the concentration on feminist books.)

Would that another Madison icon just down the street, the University of Wisconsin Bookstore, could muster a scrap of such imagination.  A decade ago, the entire general trade book department was reduced to a tiny fraction of its former glory and moved to a pathetic corner room on the supplies floor.  The buyer- one of the smartest retail booksellers on the continent- was let go.  And last week I noticed that, like the punch line of a very bad joke, even this tiny book space has been colonized by cards and sidelines and assorted crap and the few remaining books are being crowded out.  Why not just give in and say you're a bookstore in name only?

This sequence of events is playing out in college bookstores across the continent, but the transformation of UW Madison into a zombie store is a personal heartbreak.  I spent a couple years pursuing a journalism grad degree at UW in the seventies.   While I can barely recall some of the classes, and the assigned books come dimly into focus only after some effort, I vividly recall the happy hours spent on the four huge floors of the University Bookstore.

The building was a shrine to knowledge.   The textbook department in the basement was massive, and relatively uninteresting.  The goal was to get out as quickly and cheaply as possible.  But the trade book department on two upper floors was inviting, expansive, and packed with books on every conceivable subject.  The store and the books were there to encourage elective, non-assigned reading.  The hope was that students would voluntarily expose themselves to ideas, and a stellar bookstore was the obvious way to efficiently facilitate this.  When groups of incoming freshmen with their parents in tow toured campus every August, the bookstore was showcased as a key space.  Access to it was part of what coming to university got you.

I spent hours and days in that store.  I stumbled upon books and subjects that have continued to fascinate me years later.  I made trips to the bank for $8 withdrawals from my meager savings account to buy books I couldn’t afford.  That bookstore taught me how to search out ideas in a way that actual classes often didn’t.  (With the exception of Mary Ann Yodelis Smith’s rigorous “Law of Mass Communication” course, which was the intellectual challenge of a lifetime.)  The Bookstore in fact functioned like an academic department in some ways, and was accorded a stature commensurate with that role.  So when I walk into the claustrophobic afterthought that now comprises the trade department, I get a little choked up.  And a little mad.

Why it’s all come to this is a subject too big for my blog and my brain, but it has to do with the shift toward the almighty market model as the sole valid measure of social worth.  The bean counters would surely be quick to point out that my beloved trade books were probably not carrying their weight on P&L statements for many years before space was reduced.  And they were probably not profitable in the seventies when they had miles of inventory.  

But what about mission?   Is it really possible that encouraging students to read outside of assigned texts is no longer a goal at universities?   Can administrators be so foolish as to assume the internet has replaced this resource?

The argument that “we’d like to have big bookstores but they’ve proved unsustainable” is unconvincing. What about all the very high ticket and debt-laden investments in sports?  Universities are big institutions.  Is every department expected to show profitability?  If too few students enroll in Literature courses is the English Department downsized and eliminated because “the market has spoken?”  (Sadly, this probably is sometimes the case.)  Bookstores are a different breed of retail, and college bookstores are even more different.  But it can be done.

Potentially, university bookstores have some exceptional competitive advantages: large spaces with cheap or no rent, access to endlessly desirable inventory, excellent booksellers and buyers, and a guaranteed audience of intellectually sophisticated students and faculty.  There’s a concentration of the greatest working minds in fields like economics and business on many campuses. Is it really impossible to summon the skill and imagination from within the university to make a viable bookstore work?  Mission!

The University of Wisconsin Bookstore may be a lost cause, but students there will have access to books via Room of One’s Own and Rainbow Bookstore Coop.  They can look to their lucky counterparts at University of Minnesota, where a wonderful university bookstore thrives, and south to the University of Chicago, where the one of a kind Seminary Coop Bookstore enters its 51st year in new expanded space.  The question of why such a brilliant model of academic bookselling can survive and thrive in Chicago when so many other powerhouse universities have downsized their bookstores into glorified Seven Eleven's is mystifying.

I’m worried about the heretofore stellar McGill University Bookstore, which seems to be in a general books death spiral.  This was another encyclopedic trade department, a browser’s paradise.  Should it be eliminated the loss would be felt across Quebec, where they are the primary source for English language academic books.  If a store with the caliber of McGill goes down, maybe it’s too late for college bookstores.  The market has spoken and it wants toy and T-shirt shops.

But just when I’m feeling despondent I call on the University of Calgary Bookstore.  It’s a cheerful, well- stocked trade store, a throwback to the way college bookstores used to feel.  Though it has plenty of non-book product, just about every subject taught at the university is represented by a trade book section.  Displays and promotions make me feel like I’m in a real bookstore, with a clever nod to their market- 20% off on all classics in September, a university-supported gesture to get students reading classics recreationally.

I asked the excellent buyer how he manages to maintain a real trade bookstore when so many college stores are collapsing under pressure.  He said that the higher-ups just really support having a strong trade inventory because they think it’s important.  And that the clothes sell so well that they let the books take care of themselves.

This was a revelation.   Clothes and sweatshirts with better margin and faster turn than books is traditionally the rationale used to replace books with more clothes and sweatshirts.  (Or, for that matter, jewelry and souvenirs in museum shops.)  But here the same data were interpreted to cut book sales some slack.

In the admittedly thankless project of finding a way to make college bookselling sustainable, I’m rooting for the Calgary strategy.


  1. The bookstore at my university, University of Western Ontario, was like the one you speak about. It won "Best Independent Bookseller" award from the Canadian Booksellers Association a few years after I graduated. I haven't been back since then, but I hope it's still going strong.

  2. Indeed the U of Calgary buyer is amazing and one of a kind. For him to give credit to the "higher ups" is generous on his part. It is his true love of literature as a supreme reader, and his wicked ability to handsell, as well as his creative marketing and display abilities with books that keep his customers coming back and keeps us reps happy. There are a few other buyers that still exist, as you say, as a "throwback to the way college bookstores used to feel" : the buyer at the U of A in Edmonton is also great, as is the buyer at the U of Lethbridge. But Brad is really a standout and a true gem.

  3. I remember when the bookstore you write about was one of the best in the country. No one on campus now could even imagine how good it was!