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ISSUE 117 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/23/2004

Bookstore needs independence

By Andrea Horbinski
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 23, 2004

Finding something in ones mailbox is exciting for every Ole. I was thoroughly dismayed, however, to find a bookstore customer satisfaction survey in my mailbox this week. Complimentary candy bar aside, I cant help but wonder if this surveys results will be used as evidence in favor of selling out my beloved, independent St. Olaf Bookstore. My beloved bookstore, it seems, would be replaced by a big, soulless corporation, along the lines of either Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Inc., or Follett Bookstores.

Regardless of the surveys outcome, leasing the bookstore is a terrible idea. Yes, St. Olaf is strapped for cash. However it seems that the administration is willing to mortgage part of the colleges unique spirit for a very small short-term benefit. In particular, I question how well a corporate bookstore would be able to support St. Olafs (academic) mission as a college of the church.

St. Olaf Vice President and Treasurer Alan Norton was correct when he stated that evaluating the potential gains of outsourcing is the responsible thing to do. Although he said money isnt everything, and that is a lesson that I would think most colleges strive to teach their students.

At the very least, outsourcing the bookstore to a corporation would undermine that essential message severely. Corporate bookstores look at the bottom line first. The virtue of independent bookstores is that they are able to take a more holistic view of the lives of book buyers, in addition to the business of books.

As a book addict, I can think of several compelling reasons to keep the St. Olaf Bookstore independent. The most important is admittedly intangible. Anyone who has ever compared an independent bookstore to one of the big corporate chains will know what I mean when I talk about the difference in atmosphere between them.

Granted, chains such as Barnes & Noble offer many books on a wide variety of subjects, as well as steep discounts on the latest best sellers. What they also offer, insidiously, is uniform, homogenized mass culture, right down to the identical nondescript appearance, layout, and seasonal displays of every store. Chains stacks are wide, but they arent deep.

When I first visited St. Olaf, I was delighted to observe the bookstores impressive selection for its small size. These included university press offerings, bargain books most chainstores wouldnt offer (such as recent current paperbacks of Anita Diamants The Red Tent or Michael Chabons The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Also included were the "Book Sense 76" newsletter of independent bookseller recommendations, and even the imported British volumes lurking around the shelves and the bargain cart.

Indeed, the bookstores independent status was a small but important factor in my decision to attend St. Olaf. Independent bookstores have vanished entirely from my area of the country. At home Im forced to be a connoisseur of chain bookstores, to which the St. Olaf store is far superior. Not only does it sell books, it offers Norwegian sweaters and food.

These are a priceless part of the St. Olaf mystique, right up there with Um Ya Ya and Christmas Fest, but I doubt a corporation would be willing to deal with the small Norweigan vendor which currently provides them to the store. Where will we get our Norwegian sweaters, if not the school store? The Norwegian imports store in town carries them. However, their prices are higher than the bookstore's, and we all know it's a long, cold walk into town.

Finally, its impossible for a broke college student not to appreciate the coupons the bookstore dispenses each semester, 20 percent discounts on various products and free candy bars. A corporation would be reluctant, to put it mildly, to offer such promotions. Similarly, I sympathize with the bookstores employees. They face the very real prospect of losing their jobs if the store is outsourced. As a customer I dread the idea. The current employees are personable and knowledgeable, and their replacements could only be inferior.

The bookstores current situation is quite reminiscent of the 1998 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie Youve Got Mail, in which Hanks corporations ruthless destruction of her small, independent bookstore is mitigated by their budding relationship via AOL Instant Messenger. No such happy ending awaits St. Olaf. Outsourcing the bookstore is a decision that would be nearly impossible to reverse, and it should not be considered lightly.

The budget shortfall, though severe this fiscal year, cant last forever. Furthermore, whether the savings from outsourcing would be more than negligible remains an open question. Norton himself admits that Im not going into it [outsourcing exploration] expecting to see big dollar differences. Under these circumstances, the prudent thing to do is to maintain the bookstores independence, and to have a candy bar.

Contributing writer Andrea Horbinski is a first year from Marlton, N.J. She majors in classics with linguistics and Japan Studies concentrations.

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