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July 03, 2008

Evolving College Bookstores

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

If you attended the University of Michigan, you might not have the slightest idea of what I'm writing about: the college bookstore.

True, there were and are bookstores atop the hill in Ann Arbor that sell textbooks, art and engineering supplies, notebooks, pens, pencils and even college-logo sweatshirts and beer mugs. It's also true that the original Borders store was there -- though that comparatively cozy establishment is gone and a huge newer one is around the corner and down Liberty Street. But none of those are bookstores controlled by the university or perhaps the student association, and that's what this post is about.

(Okay, I over-dramatized. Gotta snare eyeballs somehow. Those non-Borders Ann Arbor bookstores are pretty much the same as "official" college bookstores aside from the nature of the ownership and for-profit/non-profit status.)

Speaking of Borders (and Barnes & Noble), before they went big-time it was often the college bookstore that was the most comprehensive in town. That was true in Seattle, where the student association-owned University [of Washington] Bookstore reigned for decades. It had its rivals, of course. Across the street for many years was the for-profit Washington Bookstore that also sold textbooks and college-related items. Downtown department stores used to have fairly decent book departments, and there once was a large used-book store downtown. Nevertheless, the University Bookstore was It for a long time and I still hold fond memories of its glory days. My fondest memory is of the day Sophia Loren waltzed through the lobby wearing a bright red dress.

The University Bookstore has several branches, some of which seem harder to justify than others. Besides the main site on a business street a block from campus, there are branches at the student union building and the medical school: that's okay. Also okay are branches at the UW brand-extension campuses (University of Washington Bothell, University of Washington Tacoma). On the other hand there was a bookstore branch in the heart of Seattle's business district for a number of years. It was situated a few blocks from where the original UW was, but the university departed for its present site in the mid-1890s. And there is a campus-less branch across Lake Washington in Bellevue. It sells textbooks. Not textbooks for UW classes, but instead for classes in private secondary schools. And of course it sells trade books, school supplies, logo gear and the rest. I also see that there is yet another branch in a suburb north of Seattle, not near a campus. This seems a far step removed from a student-services bookstore, even though the non-student items sold probably contribute to the support of the original functions of selling textbooks and supplies.

When I entered Dear Old Penn, the campus bookstore was wedged into one end of the basement floor of Houston Hall, the student union building. Yes it was cramped. But the charm of that was enhanced by something so odd that it is unique in my long history of bookstore exploration. It was the system used for displaying books: they were shelved -- by publisher!! I forget whether the next step in the shelving hierarchy was sorting by subject or by author's last name, though I'm inclined to believe it was the latter.

A few years later the bookstore was moved to a much larger temporary location on Locust Street where it remained for many years. Books were shelved normally. Today the store is in a very nice large building on Walnut and 36th.

There has been one significant change, however. The store seems to be managed by Barnes & Noble. Well, that's a guess. But B&N cards seem to be accepted there and there are other B&N tell-tales even though the store sells textbooks and all the rest of what one expect to find at a college bookstore. I was in New Haven a few years ago and the Yale Coop also had a B&N tinge to it.

Since I'm in Seattle and far, far from Ivy League schools I would greatly appreciate any input on the apparent Barnes & Noble-ication of college bookstores in the League and elsewhere.



posted by Donald at July 3, 2008


No love for Elliott Bay? I'd say it's the second best bookstore in the NW, behind a certain well-known joint down there in Portland...

Posted by: cure on July 3, 2008 8:49 PM

cure -- When I wrote this, I was casting my mind back to the 50s and 60s -- and should have made that clear.

Agreed that Powell's is tops, especially when one is looking for hard-to-find stuff. The big chain stores tend to pay attention to folks living in their localities. For example, the Tacoma Borders (when I used to go there) was strong on military history because of nearby Ft. Lewis and McChord. The University Village Barnes & Noble is strong on art-related books. Its selection is better than that of the University Bookstore and roughly par with Elliot Bay Books. Elliot Bay Books is good on boat-related stuff. The political shelves are pretty hard-core left. For example, I never spotted Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism there even when it was on the New York Times best-seller list.

The bottom line is that book shopping is vastly better in the Puget Sound area than it was when the University Bookstore was nearly the only game in town.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 3, 2008 9:05 PM

Bookstores are under intense competitive pressure from e-commerce. A lot of the little specialty bookstores have already gone under. I've worked in a college bookstore and a medical bookstore and they're struggling. Besides textbooks and medical reference books they were increasingly relying on knicknacks to keep afloat (fewer and fewer non-textbook books).

Even Powells had a belt-tightening a few years back, leading to a restructuring and a rather bitter labor dispute which has, however, been settled.

B&N and other bid every year to take these bookstores over on contract.

Posted by: John Emerson on July 3, 2008 9:26 PM

Donald, I'm not surprised you found that the bookstore at UM is now a Barnes & Noble: the bookstores on more than 600 campuses in the U.S. are run by Barnes & Noble College Bookstores. It's a sister company to the regular B&N; its chairman reportedly owns a controlling interest.

Interestingly, when B&N took over the bookstore at Rutgers-Newark, it was reported that the university got a 9 percent cut of each sale...but also that the prices were higher than at the local independent.

Posted by: Jeff on July 4, 2008 2:07 AM

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