Book Wars

By Emily Gold / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
When the University combined its bookselling operations into a single location thirty years ago, Amazon was the name of a South American river, and a superstore was where Superman might shop.

The new Brown Bookstore on Thayer Street drew browsers from all over Rhode Island, and students lined up at cash registers to drop hundreds of dollars on textbooks that couldn't be bought anywhere else.

These days the competition is stiffer, of course, and from time to time on campus a fear arises that the heydayof small, locally owned bookstores could well be over. (Thayer Street, though, is home to not one but two such stores: the independent College Hill Bookstore perseveres right across Olive Street from the Brown store.) Battling such superstores as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and such on-line booksellers as and, college stores have shown they are vulnerable, even with their semicaptive clientele. Almost 30 percent of U.S. universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Penn, have shown sufficient declines in sales to warrant turning over management of their bookstores to national chains.

At Brown, sales of general fiction and nonfiction have been falling about 5 percent a year for the past few years, says bookstore director Larry Carr. He fears that textbook sales, which have been breaking even, face an increasing threat from on-line competition. "If students hop around and we don't sell all the books for all the courses, we lose out," Carr says. "We will not break even." Students could also lose out. A drop in overall textbook sales, Carr adds, could diminish the bookstore's ability to stock the many required textbooks that return no profit to the bookstore.

How will institutionally owned bookstores survive? "They'll change or they won't survive," says Martha Love, information analyst for the National Association of College Stores. Right now the Brown Bookstore's most profitable sales are those of greeting cards, Brown-licensed apparel and gifts, and other general merchandise. The store recently took over all on-campus sales of computers but has yet to see a profit from that business. The only way to stay alive, Carr and Love agree, is to go on-line. "The best combination," Love says, "is a physical store with an on-line presence."

Next fall, students visiting should be able to buy and reserve textbooks with the click of a mouse, Carr says. He hopes to take advantage of the store's ability to know ahead of time what books will be required for what courses and to present the information electronically in user-friendly form - something other on-line booksellers cannot do. Another advantage the Brown store will have, according to Carr, will be its combination of on-line inventory and physical proximity to campus. Students will be able to order their books on-line and stroll over to Thayer Street to pick them up, rather than having to wait for more costly overnight delivery from distant on-line sellers. Eventually, the hope is that many alumni and parents will also buy books and other merchandise from the bookstore's Web site.

The bottom line is that University Hall has no immediate plans for turning over the management of its bookstore to a chain, Carr says. "The chain companies are in business to make a profit," he notes. "Over the course of the contract term, they make money, but usually at the expense of the customers." Such companies, he says, also have difficulty keeping up the "feel" of a local store, a value that students and others in the community still value at the Brown Bookstore.

Still, the danger signs are clear. When Alena Graedon '02 went shopping for textbooks in September, she went to the Web as well as to Thayer Street. She bought about a third of her books on line, saving 15 to 20 percent on each purchase, she says: "That adds up. I like to support independent bookstores instead of corporate chains, but sometimes I have to consider money over my political leanings."

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November / December 1999