One of the first signs that trade books in campus bookstores might be deeply troubled was when the NACS Foundation released a white paper called “Defining the College Store of 2015” at its 2010 annual Camex convention. The organization called on bookstores to drop the word “book” and define themselves more broadly as campus “stores.” Fast-forward three years and both trade and textbook sales on many campuses have continued to decline. In part, that’s because of an overall transition in the way students and faculty shop, with many students buying textbooks, if at all, online, and bypassing the school store entirely for book purchases. In fact, the seasonal rhythm of student and faculty purchases has changed so much that earlier this month, the Follett Higher Education Group laid off 570 fulltime employees at 400 stores it manages to cut costs and allow more flexibility in staffing.
As college stores struggle to keep trade books part of their mix, one book buyer said he believes that trade books are victims of past success. “If books were a new product, with no sales history, with no expectations based on how things used to be, the sales generated by a strong selection would still be relevant and valuable,” noted Karl van Brenk, trade book buyer at the University of California at Davis bookstore. “If you staff appropriately, manage your stock carefully, and cater to the unique qualities of your clients, your book selection can be a thriving and profitable part of your store.”
At van Brenk’s store, however, the space allocated to trade books has been reduced by 30% over the last five years. The store, which is located in wine country, does well with bestsellers by the likes of David Sedaris, Michael Pollan, and Khaled Hosseini, along with more niche books such as Grape Pest Management that cater to locals. Although van Brenk prides himself on having one of the world’s best selections of titles relating to wine, in terms of unit sales, bargain books is the store’s strongest category, selling at least 100 units a day.
“I was somewhat shocked to find out how important price is,” explained van Brenk, which is one reason why UC Davis Stores decided to participate in a yearlong pilot program that began this fall, partnering with Amazon to sell the store’s books and merchandise online (davis.amazon.com). As part of the arrangement, each UC Davis student receives a free six-month membership to Amazon Student Prime, and the store earns a little over 2% on purchases made using these accounts, and on purchases made via UC Davis’s Web portal. To facilitate the partnership, the store is also adding Amazon lockers. In NACS’s “Campus Marketplace” e-newsletter last month, UC Davis Stores director Jason Lorgan commented on the decision to partner with Amazon: “We have all kinds of marketing programs to drive people into the store. But the truth is, most college stores have about 50% market share [of student book purchases] today. Do I want to get a small piece of that 50% I don’t have, or do I just want to give it up?... Retailers have to adapt to the fact that they are just one of many options.”
North Dakota State University in Fargo expanded its trade book presence in December 2009 by opening a satellite bookstore downtown in the NDSU Cityscapes Plaza; it also purchased an Espresso Book Machine to give the new store more appeal. The store, however, closed two years later when the entire complex in which it was housed failed to draw the expected customer traffic. “Our trade book department has been significantly reduced,” said Carol Miller Schaefer, director of NDSU Bookstore. “As a former trade book buyer, I struggled to keep trade books in the store, as I feel that they [set the tone] for a college campus. But even I download new books onto my iPad.” The EBM is now at the campus’s main bookstore, along with a mix of bestsellers, some nonfiction, and children’s books.
At least one store has decided to adapt to falling trade sales by dropping trade books entirely. University of Southern Maine Bookstores in Portland stopped carrying trade titles this semester and laid off its longtime trade books manager, Barbara Kelly, who had been with USM for 24 years. Although bookstore director Nicki Piaget declined to comment, Kelly told PW that online classes, in particular, have hurt the bookstore. “Students have no reason to come in the store, and they forget that trade books are even there,” she said. Reduced hours aimed at cutting payroll, along with showrooming, have also taken a toll at Southern Maine. Ironically, through her newly launched business, Kelly’s Books to Go, Kelly is back on campus, handling book sales for speakers and at conferences.
Though the NDSU Bookstore wasn’t able to maintain an off-campus location, UConn Co-op general books manager Suzy Staubach is “optimistic” about her school’s newly built store in downtown Storrs, which will house trade books and art supplies. “It has good vibes,” she said. The Storrs Center has 15,000 sq. ft. of floor space, and it includes the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (BIMP) and the Le Petit Marché cafe, which will feature UConn’s ice cream. The bookstore and BIMP will also share a black-box theater for puppet shows, readings, and forums.
Staubach has begun testing author events at the new location even before it officially opens. Last month more than 400 people came to hear Wally Lamb talk about his new bestseller, We Are Water. After it opens, Staubach is planning to kick off the holiday season with daylong activities for Small Press Saturday, featuring authors Gina Barreca (It’s Not That I’m Bitter) and Norman Stevens (A Gathering of Spoons), among others.
Five years after Brown University renovated its bookstore, which is located in a downtown shopping area, Tova Beiser, merchandise manager, trade books said, “Things are good. We had a good October and [trade book sales] were up 11% [over last year ].” Although she’s added more remainders and sidelines—stuffed animals, toys, games, and gifts (focusing on Brown-related items)—to build traffic, she continues to host a lot of author events, including a recent one with Jhumpa Lahiri for her new novel, Lowlands. The top two bestselling books so far this fall are both by Brown alums: Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls, which was required reading for freshmen, and Alison Stewart’s First Class.