By Mike Downing
Advisor to The Keystone
Last year, in Oct. of 2016, I visited Howard University in Washington, D.C. to present a paper on August Wilson. As part of my campus exploration, I discovered the Howard University Bookstore, which had previously been located on campus, is now situated off campus and operated by Barnes & Noble.
This past summer, then, I paid a visit to my undergraduate alma mater, Clarion University, and learned, much to my chagrin, that Clarion was in the same boat: the bookstore is no longer on campus and is now operated by a third party: Follett Higher Education Group, located several blocks off campus.
You read that right: There are no longer bookstores on the campuses of Howard University and Clarion University.
Just a few years ago, in 2014, I bought a Clarion University logo hat at the campus store, which was located at the center of Clarion’s beautiful campus. I was hoping to buy another. How quickly things change.
Depending on your frame of reference, this trend may or may not surprise you. However, according to SBDCnet.org, bookstores moving off campus is part of a significant trend that is occurring all over the United States. Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million are moving in to take over and, typically, re-locate campus bookstores to off-campus locations.
I am going to save my deeper industry analysis for another article, but if you haven’t guessed it by now, my fear is that the KU Campus Store [aka the KU Bookstore] is going to follow the same path as Howard, Clarion and dozens (hundreds, in time?) of other campus stores—and that will not be a good thing for our university.
Before I discuss the benefits of having a bookstore on campus, I want to be clear: the closing of the KU Campus Store is not imminent, as far as I know. I do plan to talk to KUSSI Executive Director Lisa Kowalski in the near future, to get the scoop. But I intentionally did not want to include the “official” perspective in this article because I want this to serve as a sounding of the alarm on my own terms—my own opinion—based on what I see at other schools.
Having a store on campus is a tremendous asset for a variety of reasons, but the major benefit, as far as I can tell, is that the employees—both professional and student—are interested in serving students, not exploiting them.
That means they care, they instruct, they assist, they provide support. They are part of the mission of KU, which means serving students.
They do this by making course materials available to students at the lowest possible cost while also making sure that all materials, from art supplies to various access codes, are included. The current initiative is to begin purchasing supplies while demand is low and pass the lower costs along to students.
And of course, there is the money—money that stays on campus. As you may or may not know, the bookstore is part of the nonprofit KUSSI, which donates hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money annually to the university and supports KU Athletics.
In other words, money spent by students on campus literally goes toward hiring student employees, keeping student activity fees as low as possible and funding athletics events. It stays on campus and works its magic again, rather than going immediately off campus.
I could list more reasons, but I’ll save that for a future article. The point now is that I believe all of us need to work together to make sure that the KU Campus Store is a sustainable endeavor, long into the future. It is part of our campus identity and to lose it would be a great blow to everyday campus life.
In other words, if it moves off-campus, we will never get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s likely gone forever. The current space will be reclaimed for some other purpose and that will be the end of it. Students will have to go downtown to a third-party vendor for their supplies. Let’s not let that happen.
Please know that I am not trying to promote more book sales in an attempt to save the KU Campus Store. Neither is KUSSI. Our students are already loaded with debt; nobody wants them to have more. This is all about cooperation with the goal of serving students as effectively as possible in terms of understand what the needs are and providing those needs as cost-effectively as possible.
In closing, there are many people on campus who believe that, through coordinated effort, we can keep the store on campus well into the future. If we can’t accomplish this, I fear we will continue along the path we seem to be on and watch as the store eventually dwindles and is picked up by a third party vendor who moves it downtown where it will be largely disassociated from day-to-day campus life.
I am hoping to produce two more articles on this subject. One on trends in the bookstore industry as a whole and another focusing on the challenges facing our own particular bookstore.
I invite further conversation and or questions on this matter. Thanks for your time. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.