Coalition forms to save the Brown Bookstore

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Just three days after the University Bookstore Review Committee issued a report recommending the Brown Bookstore be outsourced, a coalition dedicated to saving the bookstore’s independence organized and launched a Web site. The Save the Bookstore Coalition has gained local support from, among others, Professor of History Gordon Wood and Ward 1 City Councilman David Segal and has attracted backers from as far away as Texas.

Since the Web site was launched on March 6, the coalition has grown to include over 120 politicians, students, professors, local community activists and alums. The Web site – which includes an official Save the Bookstore blog and a “mythbusters” fact sheet – receives an average of 2,800 hits per day, according to Brian Sweeney GS, the coalition’s media contact.

The coalition, which is not affiliated with the Brown Bookstore, was started by a group of University graduate students following a meeting between members of the committee and the Graduate Student Council. Members of the GSC “were very dissatisfied with some answers that were given” to their questions about the recommendation, Sweeney said. The GSC soon passed a resolution opposing outsourcing of the bookstore, and the coalition was born shortly after.

“This time last week we didn’t exist,” said Sian Roberts GS, co-chair of the coalition. “Last Saturday a few of us grumbled about the recommendation. By Monday, I was phoning (council members), community members, David Segal. I was on the phone and e-mail the whole day.”

Roberts said the coalition believes the detrimental effects of outsourcing the bookstore will affect both the Brown community and the larger Providence community.

Concerns among members of the Brown community include a potential rise in textbook prices and the possible unwillingness of a large corporation such as Barnes and Noble to cater to the University’s specific needs.

Roberts said Barnes and Noble often sells textbooks to students at prices up to 5 to 7 percent above list prices.

“Even if you compare textbook prices to the Barnes and Noble Web site, the ones in the university bookstores (owned by Barnes and Noble) are higher. You’re really looking at a case of anti-competitive pricing,” Sweeney said.

Roberts added that Barnes and Noble has a one-to-three-day return policy following a purchase. Such a policy, she said, would be “unworkable” given Brown’s shopping period.

“All other corporate-run peer institution bookstores have retained that one-to-three-day return policy. I don’t see why Brown thinks they’ll get a special contract,” Sweeney said.

Elizabeth Huidekoper, executive vice president for finance and administration and chair of the Bookstore Review Committee, said if Brown cannot negotiate return policies with an external vendor to accommodate shopping period, it will not go through with outsourcing.

The coalition’s other main concerns include the likelihood of higher rents on Thayer Street if a major vendor moves in, the effect of such a change on the Thayer Street aesthetic, the labor practices of companies like Barnes and Noble and the future of current bookstore employees’ jobs.

Although Barnes and Noble would guarantee all current bookstore employees comparable benefits and salaries to what they currently receive for one year, Roberts said it is not unusual for Barnes and Noble to slash wages and hours after one year is up.

“What happens on day 366?” she asked.

One of the reasons the committee might choose to outsource, Roberts said, would be to increase profits by charging rent to an external vendor. She said this move would not make sense because the bookstore currently pays the University to use the space.

Huidekoper, however, said the bookstore only pays the University for the cost of operating the building (such as heating and lighting) and does not pay rent.

Roberts said she hopes the coalition will send a strong message to the committee and the University that there is significant opposition to outsourcing the bookstore.

The committee’s report states opposition to “selling out” should not be underestimated, and “the Cabinet should give special consideration to whether the extent of opposition will be strong enough to divide the campus and distract attention from Brown’s Academic Enrichment initiatives.”

The coalition, however, is skeptical about the committee’s claims.

“We’re very worried that the decision has already been made and that the small timeframe given (for the community to discuss outsourcing) is just sort of a placatory gesture,” Roberts said.

Huidekoper, however, said the committee is open to both outsourcing and keeping the bookstore independent, but it had not yet been presented with a workable independent model.

“We haven’t seen yet the self-operating model. We’re getting a lot of criticisms about the other model, but we haven’t seen anything about how the self-operating model could accomplish objectives set forth. That model has to be developed further before we make the right call,” she said, adding that two Brown employees are currently working with bookstore staff to come up with such a model.

Roberts agreed that “significant changes” to the bookstore have to be made regardless of the University’s action, but she added she does not believe Barnes and Noble will make those changes.

Huidekoper said she does not believe the dialogue surrounding the future of the bookstore should be “about developing arguments against outsourcing the bookstore, it (should be) about developing options” for improving it.

Still, Roberts and Sweeney could think of few reasons why the University would support outsourcing. They cited a “blind faith in the corporate model” and, despite Brown’s penchant for presenting itself as “different,” the existence of a “pressure institutionally to conform” to peer institutions.

Save the Bookstore’s Web site cites the Harvard University, Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology bookstores, which are all operated by Barnes and Noble, as examples of the shift to outsourcing.

Huidekoper insisted, however, the Committee was only concerned with “finding the best option for Brown.”

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