Cafe planned in bookstore overhaul

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Changes to the Brown Bookstore that will see the construction of a cafe, a revamped community outreach program and an online textbook ordering service are underway and on schedule, says Bookstore Director Manny Cunard.

“We’re going to re-establish ourselves as a premier bookstore,” said Cunard, who expects the improvements to be completed by August of next year.

Cunard, who left Wesleyan University last December to become director of the bookstore at Brown, brought with him a vision of “an inviting, scholarly and general bookstore” that would better serve the shifting customer base that has caused book sales to decline in recent years, he said. To that end, he proposed a series of improvements – referred to by bookstore staff simply as “the renewal” – covering five areas: physical structure, organizational efficiency, product mix, community outreach and customer service.

The most significant and visible change will be a renovation of the bookstore’s interior layout.

A cafe will be built on the south side of the bookstore’s main level, where the clothing shop is currently located, and a public meeting room for local book clubs and groups will also be constructed on the lower level.

The current departments – textbooks, the campus shop, general books and the computer shop – will be relocated throughout the bookstore.

“We’re going to be completely modifying the entire store,” said Cunard, who hired an architectural team out of Boston for that purpose.

The campus shop – displaced by the cafe – will join the computer shop on the second level, currently the location of the textbook department. Textbooks will move down to the lower level, the former home of the computer shop, and general books will occupy more of the first level.

Cunard said the renovations will begin after the second semester rush, around January or February of 2008.

But one change that has already been implemented is an online textbook-ordering system, which began over the summer. Intended to be a convenient alternative to the long lines and hectic environment of the bookstore during shopping period, this new service allows students to place textbook orders directly from the bookstore’s Web site.

“We’ve already received about 50 or 60 orders,” said Ed Weiss, the bookstore’s textbook manager. “It’s been pretty successful so far.”

After a user selects the desired department and course from a menu, the appropriate books pop up on screen with an “Add to Cart” option. Students can choose to order the book brand new or request a used one for a discount. Students can pay online or at the store when they pick up their packaged orders, which are ready in 48 hours.

Though technically, the 48 hours shaves two days off of the bookstore’s famously flexible 10-day return policy, Weiss said they would be understanding of individual cases.

“We won’t turn our heads on that last day,” he said.

Students can open up their box before paying and exchange whatever used books were ordered for better-quality ones.

“If someone isn’t satisfied with a used book, we have no problem letting them find one in better condition,” Weiss said.

Lily Sorber ’10 and Rahul Banerjee ’10 both used the online system to order their textbooks, and said they have been pleased with it so far.

“It’s really convenient,” said Banerjee, whose order was filled one day after its placement on Sunday.

Banerjee said he found himself making multiple trips to the bookstore under the old system, mainly due to the difficulty of finding book lists online.

“This way, the book lists come right up,” he said. “They did a real good job with this system.”

Sorber placed her order while at home in Madison, Wis., and said she was given the option of having her books delivered to her home.

“They would have mailed the books to my house,” Sorber said. “I was coming to campus in a few days, so I didn’t bother, but it’s a great service.”

Like most who place orders through the system, Banerjee and Sorber haven’t yet picked up their books from the bookstore, but both said their experiences had been positive so far.

“It was a lot easier for me because I didn’t have to go scrounging around the bookstore looking for hard-to-find and used books,” Sorber said.

Aside from physical changes to the bookstore, the renewal will see a re-prioritization of staff. Since operation of the bookstore and consumer traffic is seasonal, Cunard said, jobs at the bookstore tend to come with a degree of volatility. The renewal will put a greater emphasis on full-time employment to preserve jobs and, hopefully, create new ones.

The bookstore will also look to change the products it carries, moving toward a more traditional look and feel. Cunard said there may be a special area “reflecting Brown’s heritage,” which would carry items like replicas of the Brown charter akin replicas of the Declaration of Independence. Finally, the renewal will provide additional services to the Providence community, something Cunard said has been lacking in recent years.

“The Brown Bookstore used to be a landmark that people would visit from all over the state,” Cunard said. “But the larger community doesn’t come to the bookstore that much anymore.”

The bookstore will provide public access to a meeting lounge for local book clubs, and it plans to extend the online book ordering service to the public in the spring of 2008, complete with a book delivery service.

Weiss, who has worked in the bookstore since 1988, said bookstore employees are excited about the changes.

“We’re all very positive about the renewal,” Weiss said before pointing to his “Brown Bookstore Staff” shirt that all employees wear, another of Cunard’s ideas. “We love working for Manny and are excited about the renovations.”

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