COUNCIL Reports on the April 18 Agenda
Report of the Bookstores Committee, 2000-2001
April 11, 2001
The Committee report this year covers three topics: the provision of textbooks by internet firms, aspects of operations in the University bookstore itself, and the state of health of the two independent bookstores. Several operations-related issues we originally expected to work on this year did not, for one reason or another, ultimately prove ripe for investigation. We have made arrangements for them to appear on the charge for next year's committee.
Provision of Textbooks from Independent Internet Firms
The Provost asked us specifically to investigate the pros and cons of students obtaining their textbooks from online sources rather than from the bookstore. The question has teeth because the two sources have different cost structures and so might offer different prices.
In general, bricks-and-mortar supply is costlier because of the need to maintain physical inventory on site. It may also seem less convenient to the students because of the way demand peaks in the week or so around the beginning of term. (We do note that the University Bookstore's management of this problem has improved greatly. Whoever is chair of the committee for next year should arrange to keep an eye on this situation in September). In both of these respects, internet provision may seem a superior mode.
One major disadvantage of large-scale reliance on independent internet firms is that they do not in general offer to buy used textbooks back at the end of term and then resell them at a discount to the retail prices in subsequent semesters when the editions in question are re-used. The University Bookstore does provide this service and there can be no serious doubt that the service is a good thing for our students. (The Bookstore's management's perennial complaint regarding this remains true: there would be more of this good thing if the University faculty would announce their text selections earlier).
The other main potential disadvantage of using independent internet firms is proving to be equally real: one might reasonably have some concern as to whether the firms will stay in business and would perform reliably for us over an extended time period. There has been some operational instability and a great deal of financial instability among the well-known firms over the course of the past year or so.
On the basis of these considerations, it seems to us that the University should in no way interfere with individual students procuring their texts through whatever means they wish but that the University should basically be supportive of having textbooks sold on campus as they generally currently are i.e. by an established bricks-and-mortar vendor.
Merchandising in the University Bookstore
The one operational topic we pursued this year was that of how to help the Bookstore and Barnes & Noble staff be aware of relatively academic titles the community might like to see on the shelves. We concluded that the best incremental step would be to encourage the Barnes & Noble buyers to have regular (annual) contact with the Van Pelt subject bibliographers. It seems to us that this could be set up in a way that would not be too onerous for either side. The best first step appears to be that the principle subject matter in their meetings should be the Barnes & Noble profile for each subject, that is, the list of publishers whose catalogues should as a matter of routine be scanned and the categories of books on the lists that result that should be given further attention or automatic orders. (Specific titles could also be discussed, of course). If this seems a reasonable way of proceeding, next year's committee should see to its implementation.
For reasons described below, such a service might be of less interest to the owners of the local independent bookstores. We do feel that the independents should also be offered the opportunity to have such meetings if they so desire.
Local Independent Bookstores
The University is committed to maintaining independent bookstores in the area as well as the University Bookstore and is in fact the landlord of the two principle independent stores. We sent committee members to interview the owners to see how they were making out several years into the lifetime of the new facility and the Barnes & Noble contract.
The owner of the Penn Book Center is Achilles Nickles. He had difficult and protracted negotiations a few years ago with the University real estate office for the space he now occupies at 34th and Sansom Streets. Those negotiations, thanks to the intervention of Tom Lussenhop, ended happily; and Mr. Nickles described himself to us well satisfied with the outcome and with the current condition of his lease. The space is indeed attractive and the large windows on 34th and on Sansom allow for eye-catching displays that bring in a fair amount of foot traffic. Although his business is dependent upon textbook sales (and several departments, notably English, History, and Philosophy, seem generally to use the Penn Book Center as their preferred provider for their course books), he is also fairly pleased with the trade in non-textbook business, which he is pursuing aggressively. One example he gave is that when academic conferences are held at Penn, he displays in his windows books that might be of interest to the conference-goers. He reports that such conferences have brought in substantial trade. The proximity of the store to departments like English and History (virtually his neighbors) insure a good deal of ad hoc book buying by students and faculty members in those departments. In short, Mr Nickles reported no complaints about his current situation, and he was also, he reported in a subsequent e-mail, very pleased with the implicit concern about the welfare of his business.
The owners of the House of Our Own bookstore are Debbie Sanford and Greg Schirm. The dominant tone of that interview was less positive. Ms. Sanford and Mr. Schirm have just emerged from their own difficult lease negotiation and felt there was a contradiction between the University's stated intentions and its behavior. The University claimed to value House of Our Own as part of its plan to develop University City into a diverse and culturally rich neighborhood, but the owners felt Penn's actions had in fact hindered the operation of their bookstore.
Their complaints centered on the difficulty they had in renewing their lease. In August 1999, they learned that Penn would not renew their lease because the University wanted to relocate them on 40th Street as part of the University's development strategy. They were shown various properties on 40th Street, but all seemed to them inappropriate for a bookstore. It became clear to them that in fact Penn had no appropriate space on 40th Street. They were kept in a state of uncertainty for one year before the lease on their present location was finally renegotiated. The new terms are less favorable for them than the old ones: the lease went from 10-year to 5-year, and the rent increased sharply (albeit from quite a low level). The period of renegotiation was demoralizing and anxiety-provoking; and throughout it the owners felt that the University's motives and intentions remained ambiguous. They felt that the University's development and real estate offices showed little sensitivity to the special nature and needs of an independent bookstore, treating them as if they were just another retailer in the neighborhood of Penn.
We had Mr. Lussenhop in attendance for the discussion of this report. Committee member Lee Nunery, Vice President for Business Services, was also present. They gave explanations but were also open and responsive to expressed concerns. We ended that part of the meeting feeling that whatever else was true, there had been a significant failure of communication between the University and the House of Our Own owners. Mr. Lussenhop undertook personally to clear the air in the near future and we presume that he will do so.
A number of positive suggestions for ways in which the University might work more effectively with House of Our Own emerged from the discussion and these are of relevance to all local bookstores. Although House of Our Own receives some publicity through its membership in the University City District and the recently formed 40th Street Business Association, the independent bookstore should be better integrated into Penn's publicity. It could, for example, be added to the Penn Web site and included on Penn's maps of the West Philadelphia community. There could be a section in the Almanac and Gazette including inter alia announcements of readings and other such events. Mr. Schirm and Ms. Sanford had also remarked that Penn's current policy of allowing students to deduct textbook purchases at Barnes and Noble directly from their financial aid discourages students from buying textbooks at the independent bookstores. The financial arrangements in question were not entirely clear to us, but it did seem clear that such arrangements ought to be available to local bookstores on a equitable basis unless there is some sort of exclusive dealing constraint embedded in the Barnes & Noble contract.
Each of the three main bookstores in University City has developed a distinctive personality. This variety is in itself a valuable element of Penn's larger intellectual community. If lost, it would be very hard to recreate. The University's interest in the long-term viability of the independents seems to us palpable. The Penn Book Center's move seems, in the end, to have been handled well and the store seems now to be in a stable situation. The situation at House of Our Own appears more ambiguous at present and future committees should monitor developments.
--Daniel Raff, Chair
Bookstores Committee Members -2000-2001
Chair: Daniel Raff (mgmt); Faculty: Warren Breckman (history), Sarah Gordon (law), Ewa Morawska (sociol), John Richetti (English), Karen B. Wilkerson (nursing); Graduate/professional students: John Barret (WHG); Jessica Pitts (NUG); Undergraduate students: Steven Herbst (NUR '04), Meredith Regan (NUR '04); PPSA: Jennifer Conway (Penn Humanities Forum), Bob Persing (Van Pelt Library), Laura Waldron (Univ of Penn Press); A-3: Danielle Kradin (prov); Ex officio: Lee Nunery (vp, bus dev)
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 30, April 17, 2001