Skip to main content

The College Bookstore

In a recent note, President Kington wrote The bookstore’s primary mission is to provide materials for the students as they pursue their degrees and support for faculty instructional needs. I find that a sadly narrow view of college bookstores in general, and our bookstore in particular. So, let us instead consider my vision of a college bookstore and perhaps even delve into the bookstore’s current stated mission [1].

I think it’s pretty well acknowledged that the written word is core to a strong liberal arts education [2]. After all, why else do so many institutions have a writing across the curriculum program and why else would Grinnell have its new departmental writing goals initiative? While the library clearly serves as a repository of the written word, the bookstore plays an equally important role, because it helps members of our community find books that they might care enough about that they keep for themselves. Don’t we think that a good bookshelf is the sign of an educated person? Don’t we often judge people based on what books we see when we walk in their homes? The bookstore plays an important role in getting books into people’s hands, and therefore supports the College’s mission to educate.

From that perspective, a bookstore is one the intellectual centers of a college community. It’s a place where people can discover ideas. It’s a place where faculty and alumni can share ideas through their publications.

I expect that a bookstore places a strong role in recruiting faculty. Given a choice between two institutions, would you rather work at one with or without a strong bookstore? How about one that didn’t even have a bookstore? I know what I’d choose. I also don’t think I’d live in a town without a good bookstore.

The bookstore also helps connect alumni to the College. It provides logo goods. (Yeah, I know, those aren’t books. But they are certainly one of the roles of the bookstore.) However, as importantly, it provides a resource for advertising and obtaining books by faculty and alumni. I know from talking with both Harley and Cassie [3] that alumni regularly contact the bookstore to obtain the latest books by faculty and other alums, and that when they are here at reunion, they search out such books.

The bookstore is also important to our town. Certainly, a bookstore makes our community more intellectually vibrant. Even in the days of cheap books on the Interweb, there’s something special about being able to look at physical books.

That’s my view of the primary mission of a bookstore. A bookstore is a central intellectual hub of a college and town community, one that provides resources for people to discover new ideas and that emphasizes the value of the written (well, printed, word). A college bookstore connects the college to its alumni, faculty, students, and broader environs.

But that’s just my view. Let’s look at the bookstore’s current mission statement, which was passed in 1998.

The Grinnell College Bookstore is an academically oriented resource, where the need for, and interest in, reading and study engendered in the classroom can be nurtured and reinforced. It is also a social focal point on the campus offering many goods and services required by a multivaried college community.

The College Bookstore is owned and operated by Grinnell College, under policies set down by the Board of Trustees, under the direction of the Dean of College Services.

The purpose of the College Bookstore is to provide for the sale of book and supply requirements connected with the academic programs of the college, the sale of general books of interest to a diverse college community, and the sale of emblematic clothing and gift items supporting promotional activities.

The College Bookstore is operated on sound business principles in the anticipation that its income will cover both its operating expenses and its attributable capital development costs.

Yup, there’s a lot to like there. The bookstore nurtures and reinforces reading. It’s a social focal point. It sells general books of interest. Not so much different than my view, except for that last paragraph.

Why do we expect the bookstore to cover its expenses? I know. It’s because it’s a best practice; other institutions expect their bookstores to cover expenses, or even make a profit, so we should to. However, we don’t ask that of the many other organization on campus that, on other campuses, are supposed to cover their expenses, or at least a significant portion of their expenses. Do our sports teams have to cover expenses (e.g., through admissions)? Nope. We decided that it’s more important to give students the opportunity to compete, and to encourage people to attend and support them by having no admission [4]. Do our theatrical productions have to charge admission to cover expenses? No. We think it’s important that all students be able to attend cultural events, and we also think it’s important to provide cultural opportunities to people in our town (and beyond), regardless of their income level. Does our cultural events series, that brings in leading performs, many of whom command ticket prices of $50 or more when they place elsewhere in the state, need to break even? No, once again, we do not charge admission because we think students should be able to attend cultural events regardless of their ability to pay, and that we have a responsibility to bring such events to our broader community.

(Do I worry, now that I’ve given this list, that the bean counters will decide to charge for athletics, plays, musical events, and our cultural events series? Yes, I worry a bit. But I also think that events are free at Grinnell is embedded deeply in our culture, so I think there would be significant enough pushback that it would not happen. Or at least I’ll cross my fingers that it won’t happen.)

Twenty years ago, it may have been reasonable to expect a bookstore to cover its expenses. But the book world has changed significantly. Many people buy their books from Amazon and other online booksellers. Many students prefer electronic textbooks, or find a better price on used textbooks online. This change has led to the loss of so many bookstores across the country, from small independent stores to large chains like Borders and Hastings [5]. If all we care about is financial sustainability, we probably have to be prepared to shutter the bookstore, or to move to a sustaining membership model like Prairie Lights has had to embrace. But the College has resources. And the bookstore is a central part of our educational mission. So, I ask again: Why do we expect that the bookstore has to cover its own expenses?

I realize that we want to think about long-term sustainability of the wonderful place that Grinnell is. I realize that long-term sustainability includes thinking carefully about finances. But we need to think beyond finances, or the College we sustain will not be worth sustenance. Let’s build a broad view of a truly wonderful bookstore, and figure out how to support that place.

[1] I believe that the bookstore has been invited to revisit its mission statement, which is now nearly twenty years old.

[2] Yes, other things are important, too. I particularly think quantitative literacy is important to students in the twenty-first century.

[3] Harley is our former bookstore assistant manager, responsible for trade and text books. Cassie is our bookstore manager, responsible for the overall operation of the bookstore.

[4] Would people pay $5 or so to attend sporting events on campus? I think so, although it might deter some students. Would people pay even more than $5 to see the legendary Pioneer Basketball team? Almost certainly. Should we charge? Definitely not.

[5] Rumors suggest that Barnes and Noble may be in similar trouble.

[6] Yeah, I’m still working on endings. I like the penultimate sentence more than the last one, but this is an essay about bookstores, and not about the College’s finances, so I wanted to end with something about the bookstore.

Version 1.0 of 2016-10-15.