At a time when colleges are looking to outsource everything from food services to insignia items, their bookstores have not been immune. “Outsourcing is the name of the game in corporate America, and particularly in colleges,” said Charles Schmidt, spokesperson for the National Association of College Stores in Oberlin, Ohio. “It's all about concentrating on core mission.”
Between 1985 and 2007, the number of college stores leased to Barnes & Noble College, Follett, Nebraska Book Company and similar vendors nearly tripled and now account for approximately 35% of all outlets, NACS estimates. During the same time period, said Schmidt, the space that college stores devote to trade books has declined. For the 2005—2006 academic year, trade books comprised just 2.9% of college store sales.
To maintain their independence, some of the larger college bookstores are making trade and scholarly books the centerpiece of their operations. Rather than add more hoodies, shot glasses and other insignia items to bolster sales, these stores see their mission as providing a scholarly bookstore for the college community and the surrounding neighborhood.
Nowhere has the determination to make a college store succeed in the trade been more evident than at the 107-year-old University Book Store at the University of Washington in Seattle. Organized as an independent corporate trust to benefit students, faculty and staff, University Book Store has seven locations, including its 89,200-sq.-ft. flagship store in Seattle and two general independent trade bookstores not associated with a college campus. And if UW opens a fourth campus as planned next fall, the bookstore will add an eighth outlet to serve it.
“The truth is, the book part of the business is declining, both the trade and the textbook side,” said CEO Bryan Pearce. “When you look at the college store of the future, the growth is going to be somewhere else. We've been an oddity investing in general books; it's risky and expensive. It really comes down to being a literary resource for the campus.”
To continue to sustain overall growth of 20%—25% annually, Pearce said, “we are adamant about looking for potentials in our areas of core competencies.” Two and a half years ago, University Book Store experimented with branding itself with future students by taking on book sales for a local private high school. That effort was so successful that the store now handles book sales for six Puget Sound high schools, two specialty colleges and a community college.
In 2005, University Book Store teamed up with Powell's as part of a used book initiative. Powell's set up a temporary used book kiosk at the flagship store and trained University Book Store employees in Portland. “Now we can't bring in used books fast enough,” said Pearce, who had been holding off extending the used book program beyond the flagship store until he could work out a replenishment system. He expects to roll that out later this year.
Like UW, Brown University in Providence, R.I., is now committed to maintaining a strong academic bookstore after plans to outsource the store were met with widespread protests from students and faculty. To upgrade the bookstore, last fall Brown hired Manny Cunard, who had opened a campus bookstore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “If we're going to be the premier bookstore we want to be, we've got to expand general books,” said Cunard. “Frankly, it's our future.”
Cunard and general manager Tova Beiser are working on several programs to boost book sales, which account for 30% of overall sales; textbooks are close to 40%. They are looking at adding an online book club, regularizing story hours and maintaining the store's heavy events schedule.
In January, a cafe with a separate entrance will be added on the ground floor, next to general books. As part of the changes, general books will grow from 3,300 to 4,000 square feet and the number of titles will increase from 50,000 to 57,500. Brown's Web site is also in the midst of an overhaul, which began with selling textbooks online this season. Students can order their books online from bookstore.brown.edu and pick them up at the store.
Rather than try to draw area readers to its campus bookstore, five years ago Colgate University Bookstore in Hamilton, N.Y., went to them, and moved off campus. Now it runs a free shuttle bus (express during textbook rush) to bring students to the bookstore and to encourage them to support other village businesses. “Our trade sales, although they're flat right now, have increased over 50% from our move into the village,” said bookstore director Vicky Brondum. Overall, sales have gone from $3.4 million in 2002 to $4.2 million.
As part of the move, Colgate put general books on the first floor and increased its inventory to 30,000 titles. It also added a dedicated events space, where it holds as many as 150 events a year. With the proliferation of digital music downloads, Brondum decided to eliminate the store's music section this summer.
For Cliff Simms, cofounder with Chris Doeblin of Great Jones Books, a scholarly wholesaler, and of Labyrinth Books in New York City (which Doeblin recently spun off and renamed Book Culture), what's needed is an entirely different college store model. “It's clear that the place that sells everything can't work. There needs to be a different collaboration both supporting scholars and readers,” said Simms, who with his wife, Dorothea von Moltke, and brother, Peter Simms, now owns Great Jones Books, Labyrinth Books in New Haven, Conn., and a soon-to-be-opened Labyrinth Books in Princeton. “The first thing everybody asks me is, 'Are you selling coffee?' It used to be that the books were different enough to keep everybody's attention.”
In Simms's view, a scholarly bookstore should sell only books, and that is the case at both Labyrinth stores, although in Princeton, where Labyrinth will function as the official campus bookstore, it will sell merchandise. Simms likens the quandary that college bookstores face to that of university presses, which are also dependent on academic institutions. Colleges need to support the free flow of scholarly ideas, but at the same time they have to maximize the income they get from their scholarly books and stores.