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COUNCIL Discussion on Bookstore Committee Report


Bookstore Committee Report: Debate and Action on Posting Text Lists

Dr. Robert Regan: We were asked as chairs of committees to highlight three important things we did last year. Well, some of you who passed the windows of the Bookstore may have noticed that the lipsticks and the powder puffs are gone, and books are there; and you may have seen some changes inside in the stocks; and we can take some credit for that.

But the issue that I really ought to discuss today is the one that has raised a great deal of anxiety in the community. What is going to happen when we have the Barnes & Noble superstore, across the street from today's Faculty Club? It's a question we spent a good deal of time looking into last year.

Barnes & Noble assured us that across the country, in places they have opened university bookstores-come to manage university bookstores-other bookstores have not been hurt. I pressed them for details and I got some details on the closest example. When Penn State turned to Barnes & Noble to manage its bookstore, in '93, there were seven bookstores in town. Today, an Encore superstore, the Barnes & Noble super-store, Seven Mountains Books, and the State College Discount Book Company have joined all the survivors. Nobody has gone under. It is not necessary, we conclude, to believe that the presence of Barnes & Noble will hurt other bookstores. We think it may increase, indeed, the awareness of books and the market itself.

We then addressed another issue-an issue that I think we ought to focus on, not on booksellers but on students. We have proposed an open and competitive market, and we think that this cannot but produce results that our students will welcome. I look forward particularly to the reappearance of something that disappeared from the University of Pennsylvania community two decades ago-price competition in the sales of textbooks.

How can we accomplish this? Our notion is that if all departments would, along with their descriptions of courses on their web pages, include the textbooks which are required for next year, life will improve for students. Students who are coming as freshmen will be able to discover what the books that their courses are using next year will be; they'll be able to buy them and read them during the summer. Students who are here will know what next year's books are; they might arrange some very, very low-cost economical swaps with their fellow students before they go home for the summer break. I think all of us will be advantaged by this system because it will get full information-something we don't have yet-about all our courses on the web at a very early date. It's going to make us all plan ahead a little more than we have in the past. And these are among the reasons that we think that this is going to be a good program for Penn students and incidentally, perhaps a good program for those who compete with the University Bookstore. Thank you.

Discussion of Bookstore Report

Dr. Larry Gross: I hadn't planned to focus on the issue of the web page as much as I think I may have to now, having heard this oral report, because I thought the issue had been appropriately discussed in the pages of Almanac, and some of the very serious concerns that I and other members of the faculty had, had been aired. When I read the report I was, I think I have to say chilled by a wind from the 'fifties: the phrase "favoring friends or ideological comrades," injected a wholly inappropriate and in some ways offensive note and ascribed motivation that I think has already been clarified in the letters that have been written....

My motivation in thinking about these issues has to do with an ideology, and the ideology is the richness and diversity of the bookstore environment, the opportunity to encourage the success of a number of bookstores. I know the Penn State situation, and it may be close but it is not comparable: Penn State had an unusually and rather wonderfully diverse range of very good bookstores including some excellent bookstores before Barnes & Noble came in. What Penn has is...one of the most limited and impoverished bookstore environments of any major university, and I ... think the University needs to carefully and thoughtfully invest resources in order to not only help the existing bookstores survive, but for others to open, to create the kind of environment [found] on Telegraph Avenue or in Madison or in Cambridge, or the places we keep talking about.... It doesn't happen without institutional support, and I don't think the institution in the decades that I've been here has been at all responsible in this regard and I hope that will change. I have had conversations with Tom Lussenhop and with John Fry and will continue to urge this along with colleagues on the faculty.

The question of an equal playing field is, quite frankly, a joke-because there is no equality between the bookstores that have struggled to survive on campus for these decades under difficult circumstances and an organization with the deep pockets and space that the superstore will have, that can simply, outflank any bookstore that is trying to compete.

I am also amused by the notion that it is in our institutional and pedagogical interest to encourage students to be reading textbooks before they take a course. I happen to think that textbook-reading is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to education.

I would hope that students would be going into bookstores like House of Our Own and Penn Book Center and discovering books that are neither assigned nor textbooks. The problem with the focus on the textbooks, which are a financial issue here more than anything else, is that they divert attention from the issue of the depth of inventory and the possibility of discovering books that one wasn't looking for and that weren't assigned and picking them up and maybe even reading them. I have noticed a decline in the quality and the depth of the inventory in the University Bookstore since it was taken over by Barnes & Noble, and when I raised this with Paul Korshin last year (he was a member of the Bookstore Committee) was told that that's what happens when Barnes & Noble takes over, they sort of filter out the old inventory, and then refill it. Well, they filtered it out-they had a whole little sale operation going on but they haven't refilled it. Now this may happen and I have no doubt will happen when they have the size and scope of the new bookstore. But we are damaging the community, the intellectual, academic, scholarly community, in a very serious way if we do not actively seek out mechanisms by which to maintain and expand the range of small, independent booksellers in our community. I hope it will increase when Barnes & Noble opens, but it won't increase by a mechanism that will weaken them in one of the very few areas that they depend upon to survive.

Let me just make one other quick point here. Businesses around universities are a special kind of business, compared to other retailers. They don't have summer business, and they don't have a Christmas season. So in terms of what retailers depend upon: retailers depend upon year-round sales with some fluctuations but they don't generally have their clients disappear for four months; and they count on Christmas season as we know. But both of those are not the case for independent businesses around the university, and therefore in my view it is incumbent on the university to help them survive, because we want them to be there. And they won't be there if we don't take seriously our responsibility to helping them.

Dr. Thomas Sugrue: I'm going to speak as someone who is deeply committed to undergraduate and graduate teaching, which is really the at the heart of the life of the University, and focus on the element of the bookstore report that deals with the proposed impact of competition on the convenience of our undergraduates.

I'd like to do that by thinking about a scenario which is my class. I teach about 200 undergraduates on average every fall in a large lecture course. Under the bookstore committee's proposal, three bookstores-House of Our Own, Penn Book Center and Barnes & Noble affiliate on campus-could access my reading list and decide to order my books. In that competitive scenario, there are two possible outcomes.

The first, if each bookstore orders 200 sets of books all hoping to get my students' business, there will be 400 sets of unpurchased books out there. The bookstores stuck with the overstock will have to pay the increasingly high price of shipping and the penalties that many publishers now assess on bookstores for returning stock to the publishers' warehouses. Those costs will have to be borne somewhere in the system, and they could very well be passed on to our students. Another possible consequence of this scenario of bookstores overstocking or ordering too many books is that the smallest of our bookstores will not be able to bear the cost of overstock books and of shipping and returning books and publishers penalties-giving a competitive advantage to the most well-funded of those three bookstores. Again, this will not necessarily lead to a reduction in prices for our students; in fact, if it creates a one-store monopoly, it could very well lead to an increase in prices.

There's another scenario, and this is perhaps a more likely scenario: All three bookstores would act in their self-interest, and they would make a guesstimate; they would order the number of books they expected to sell because they don't want to bear the cost of shipping books back and all those additional costs. They don't want to face that financial hardship. And they know they'll get some but not all of my students' business. The result in this scenario [words lost to tape turnover: from notes, it is suggested that there may not be enough books, or...] that students have to run around from bookstore to bookstore, dealing with the randomness of the situation, hence causing them enormous inconvenience.

Neither of these scenarios is in the best interests of our students, and it is for that reason as well as for reasons that I and my colleagues have outlined in Almanac, I encourage a rejection of the bookstore committee's report.

Dr. Lynn Lees: I would like to begin by calling everyone's attention to a document that most of us received in the mail today, the Agenda for Excellence, by the Executive Vice President of the University, John Fry, in which he was outlining the principles by which administrative restructuring would take place. What he says is that the first priority that has been established to guide University restructuring is "to enhance the quality of life on campus and in our neighboring communities." I think that says it all vis-a-vis the bookstore report. Houses do not a community make. You need stores, destinations, and places to congregate; and at this point West Philadelphia and University City is extremely under-provided with precisely the kinds of places that make Harvard Square exciting, the areas around Berkeley and the University of Chicago such fun places to visit. We have very few of those kinds of things. At a time when many in this university are working on the revitalization of 40th street, expanding the foot traffic in areas around the campus, increasing new areas of retail, it makes sense to give independent bookstores encouragement rather than discouragement.

I want to argue that these independent book centers are vital to the quality of life in West Philadelphia, and they're currently fighting to stay alive. At the end of this year the Penn Book Center is going to have to give up its lease, and at best it will move farther away from the campus; it will have higher rent; it will have to re-establish a business in an area where there is less foot traffic going by its front windows. If at the same time it is facing a curtailment of its revenues from some of the course orders that are given to it, can it survive? My guess is that it cannot.

And it seems to me that this is precisely the outcome that people do not want. As a resident of West Philadelphia I want to have fun places to go, within walking distance of my home and of my office. The bookstores are some of the few places around here that one can go. Faculty and students for years have been benefiting from the book-signings and poetry readings at the House of Our Own, from being able to walk into the Penn Book Center and just browse and look at good titles. And Barnes & Noble-no one is attacking Barnes & Noble, it's there, it has a lot of good stuff, but it hasn't nearly as many good books as these other places, and it's not nearly the sort of place where you want students to walk around and look at titles and decide what to read.

If the independent stores fold, it's not easy to re-establish them. What it does is simply give one more reason for graduate students to move into Center City, for faculty to move out of the area; and it just makes it that much less interesting. For all those reasons, I oppose the report as it stands.

Dr. Eric Cheyfitz: I'll wax more theoretical-since this is a university I guess I can afford to do that...

Barnes & Noble's Horatio Alger history of competition aside, we should not confuse the free market with intellectual freedom, or for that matter with any kind of freedom. They are not the same. The so-called free market has been structured historically by unequal competition based on unequal capitalization. Indeed, the free market to the extent that it moves toward corporatization, homogenization, threatens the diversity that makes intellectual freedom-a diversity based on an irreducible heterogeneity of institutions, which we're in danger of losing here....

The University should be about supporting this heterogeneity and diversity. Supporting diversity of local bookstores is crucial to intellectual freedom. Having diversity on display, not on order through a single bookstore; having diversity accessible on the floor where students can get to it and where faculty can get to it and where they can learn. Bookstores are not simply commercial emporia, they are meetingplaces for the exchange of ideas, a crucial part of the public sphere-something that we know about from the 18th century on, at least from the 18th century on, and that is crucial to something called democracy. You can't have a healthy public sphere without a diversity of intellectual institutions such as bookstores.

Lastly, commanding faculty-a pretty odious notion anyway, I must say, in what is supposed to be a democratic institution-commanding faculty to publish course lists, in a way that further advantages already exceptionally advantaged bookstores, works against this diversity by skewing competitive advantages even further-not to mention that it is also a form of institutionally totalitarianism to make such commands. So I urge the Council to vote against this resolution for forcing faculty to make these course lists available on the web.

David Goldberger: I want to touch on something that has been missed here, and that is an undergraduate student perspective. Quite frank-ly, the bookstore situation on campus right now is terrible. At the beginning of the semester the University Bookstore is often badly under-stocked, very crowded and hard to get into to get your books for class. On the other hand, a store such as House of Our Own is a model of inefficiency; I don't think I've ever seen lines in such a small place as long as the lines inside House of Our Own.

Therefore from a student's perspective I would like to flat out tell you that I don't care where I buy my books; I just want to be able to get my books, and get a good selection of books.

I believe that the Barnes & Noble stores that I've seen, both in Philadelphia and all over the country, have a good selection of books. I live in New York City and in New York City near Lincoln Square there's a giant Barnes & Noble, six stories high or something like that, which has an enormous selection to choose from. From my understanding the Barnes & Noble that is coming here is going to be a similar structure, which will have books of all different sorts, that'll allow me to read on my own whatever I want to read, and also purchase the textbooks I need for my classes. So from a student's perspective, I don't care what the revenues are, of any of the little bookstores within West Philadelphia. I don't care how much the school gets in kickbacks or whatever from whatever bookstore that we might buy these books from. I just want to be able to get my books. If Barnes & Noble can get me that, if this proposal can do that for me, I am firmly in support of it.

Dr. Robin Leidner: I think which books one gets matters, and will boldly say that I order my books from the place I consider my intellectual comrades. It isn't true that the large chain bookstores carry a full selection of the latest scholarship in all of the areas that many of us work in. I assume other faculty like me hear about new books from publishers' announcements, think they look interesting, maybe see a book review, I can order the book sight unseen I don't care to do that in the case of books I'm going to have in class. I can check in the library, they're on order, they're in process, they're not going to be available right away; I go to House of Our Own and in the some of the areas I work in and teach in, they automatically get in stock the latest works of scholarship. I can browse there, I can look at the books, I can pick them up for myself and I think this benefits me as a scholar and certainly benefits students for some of the courses that I teach. So I will just add that I found the report of the Bookstore Committee singularly unpersuasive.

Mattew Ruben: I would like to commend Mr. Bean on his report . When we had last week's special meeting, the kind of perspective he brought about how the employees feel about this debate is exactly the kind of opening up that we need, and the more people like Mr. Bean feel entitled to say the kinds of things he said today the better for all of us. We should keep in mind that these people do have to work at this Bookstore and in many cases want to work at this Bookstore regardless of what happens with this debate.

One of the reasons I was glad about last week was that it showed people who are not staff would go to the wall for something we believed in that concerned staff, and as someone who is a graduate student I'm ready here today to go to the wall for the academic freedom that the faculty enjoy. I also speak as someone who was an undergraduate and who does teach students at this point. Let me say that we may only have two major bookstores in this area; it's not clear what will happen with the Penn Book Center. The way we even figure out what books we want to order is incredibly influenced by the kinds of independent bookstores that are around here that allow us to browse and look at books. More important, if you wanted to put all the other bookstores out of business, I can't imagine a better way than the proposal of the Bookstore Committee.

The proposal I got as a member of Steering contained one and only one item and one and only one recommendation, and that was what we're discussing today. I view this recommendation as based, as others have said, on a fiction of what a market competition is like. Everyone here knows what the competitive advantage is of the independent booksellers in the area. That is customer service, the ability to fulfill orders on a last-minute basis if necessary, to provide personalized service and to go the extra mile, which in many cases-and I wouldn't expect many undergraduates to know this-in many cases results in their being able to buy certain books at all and not having to wait.

I am sure that the employees of the University Bookstore will continue in the tradition of doing their best to be of service to everyone in the University who needs them, but there are policies that will be made by Barnes & Noble, and they will have to work very hard to make personal exceptions for if they can. The independent booksellers are not constrained by these sorts of policies, and can craft their policies and the way that they act, in a micro way, to accommodate the needs of everyone here.

When I was a freshman in college I certainly would have been a little bit annoyed at having to go to more than one bookstore; by the time I was a senior, I was glad that I could go to more than one bookstore and that there were other bookstores around. I'm sure others have different stories to relate about that.... But the undergraduate experiences varied, and one of the things that helped you grow as an undergraduate is having these kinds of bookstores in the area.

This proposal in my opinion also violates the spirit of academic freedom and the tradition of faculty governance of the University. I will state here publicly that as an instructor I for one would never comply with this recommendation even if it became the policy of the University. I think it's an affront to academic freedom; I think the arguments made to support it mask and paper over the benefits that accrue to undergraduate students as well as to faculty and graduate students through the presence of independent bookstores; and I think it's incumbent upon all of us as a community to strongly reject the recommendation of this committee, on the basis of the reality that we know and we experience every day. I am prepared to introduce a resolution at the next meeting [to the effect that faculty shall not be coerced into placing textbook lists on the web].

Noah Bilenker: Another undergraduate perspective on the notion that we buy our books ahead of time: I like to survey a few classes and then I don't buy my books until I know which class I'm in. As a history major I have to read a couple of hundred pages a week; so the summer is my opportunity to a) sleep a lot or b) read what I want to read. That's not to say I don't want to read what I have for my classes....

I for one didn't even comprehend the true worth of all the bookstores in the neighborhood; maybe it's a consequence of not having that plentiful a number; but I did purchase the books for Professor Sugrue's class walking into House of Our Own at the beginning of the semester. [Something being worked on in UA] is discussing ways of utilizing the bookstores more, and maybe publicizing and setting up student coffeehouses or poetry readings at those bookstores, things that don't really occur now that we could do at Barnes & Noble also but I think would be of a different nature, than at a smaller independent bookstore; it's less private. Having the variety of bookstores could enhance the undergraduate experience in other ways too.

Dr. David Ludden: [When] I was chair of Southeast Asia Studies I had an exchange with Rosemary Stevens about whether or not the University is a business; the exchange was along the lines of "At what point does the University not become a business, and become an institution that's different from business?"

I think this is one of those situations. The University controls an awful lot of the real estate around here, including all of the real estate that would be relevant to the nurturing of the kind of environments that we're talking about The University needs to figure out on what grounds is it going to make decisions about the quality of life, not only for the students-and I think the students should definitely come first-but in a sense the students are part of a wider community where a lot of other issues to be taken into consideration.

The only thing I'd like to add is we perhaps underestimate the value of specialized book collections. In the library the University pays good money to very, very highly skilled people to develop specialized collections which no commercial publisher, no commercial interest, would ever be able to generate. This is a countercommercial operational library. Medieval History would be under the water right now if it were dependent upon commercial operations. Both the Penn Book Center and the House of Our Own are run by very dedicated, extremely talented, and very skilled specialized book collection people who produce a product that will not be replicated at Barnes & Noble.

 

[Alex Welte moves to reject the recommendation of the Bookstore Committee Report; the motion passes [please see here].

[The Moderator acknowledges Dr. Anthony Tomazinis's Facilities Committee Report with the hope that it will be heard at the next meeting.]


Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, November 18 1997, Volume 44, No. 13