Campus bookshops should reinvent themselves as cultural co-ops

Amazon may have killed the traditional business model but a physical store remains an asset for the academic community, says Paul Kelly

July 7, 2021
Montage of a book shop window inside a gold picture frame
Source: Alamy/iStock montage

The news was not exactly unexpected but it still took a moment to process: the bookstore that has served my university for 74 years is not reopening post-pandemic.

The closure of the Economists’ Bookshop – which has been a focal point of the London School of Economics’ campus since 1947 – will be mourned by many colleagues, who, like myself, have spent hundreds of hours among its shelves over the years. Academics at other universities – from Hull to Hong Kong – have experienced similar feelings of loss after their campus outlets shut their doors for good last year. But the Economists’ demise is perhaps most worrying; after all, if the LSE, normally bustling with book-buying social scientists, cannot sustain a campus bookshop, then what university can?

Of course, the economics of bookselling that underpinned campus branches for decades has been obliterated in recent times. Stores are constrained in the amount of stock they can order and retain – unlike Amazon and other online retailers, which have the added advantage of paying little to no tax or business rates. Even if campus bookshops can obtain everything in a couple of days, why not just go to Amazon in the first place?

The larger question is whether students can ever feel the same attachment to their local bookshop as previous generations did. When I was an undergraduate in 1980 at the University of York, the campus bookshop was a place of wonder. It carried all relevant texts (I studied philosophy and politics but read novels and history) and also offered new books from academic publishers. Going to the bookshop was part of keeping up with the subject, and I got to understand the publishing year and when new books would come in bigger numbers. 

That sparked what could be described as a lifelong love affair with bookshops. During my PhD in London, for instance, I relied on the wonderful Dillon’s (now subsumed into Waterstones) as much as the British Library. I also frequented the insane but wonderful Foyle’s, as well as oddities such as Collet’s, the radical leftist bookshop on Charing Cross Road, and the crazy libertarian bookshop in Covent Garden.

My first permanent job, meanwhile, was at Swansea University, whose small campus bookstore was the only venue in the city where you could buy academic books. It was a lifeline; I would go weekly for a couple of hours and read things to check whether I needed to buy them.

The business model of piling up textbooks and university-branded hoodies is clearly dead. But is there an alternative? Many university catering outlets are run entirely in-house – and not, therefore, at a genuine market rate. Could campus bookstores develop similarly deep partnerships with universities, receiving assistance with costs such as business rates or rents? Of course, universities are rightly sensitive about subsidising commercial activities with student fees or research income, but I would remind them that decent campus bookstores are as essential as entertainment venues, bars or catering outlets.

What of Amazon? University and high-street bookstores will never commercially beat it. But the co-op model beloved of US campuses is a way of overcoming its tyranny. Co-ops are able to raise capital for important investments by selling shares to students and faculty. The shares are effectively a loyalty scheme as they are not tradable, but there is no shortage of buyers. When I went to Chicago as a research fellow, for instance, I joined the Seminary Co-op. To this day, it is the only share I own personally – and to this day, the Seminary remains the best social science bookshop in the English-speaking world: even better than the Harvard Co-op.

The co-op model could allow stores to move away from attributing a share of their fixed cost to each title they stock, allowing them to carry obscure books or titles that won't sell quickly. And a store that allows students to read and see new and interesting books – even if they go on to buy them on Amazon, as happens in Chicago and Harvard as much as anywhere else – becomes a place to go.

A browsing store can then become an event space that can be used – and justifiably subsidised – for the many commemorative events of academic life that become the basis for speeches, presentations and book signings: all the things that Amazon cannot offer. After all, which author will go to a university to give a public speech on their new book if there is nowhere to buy it or to host a signing?

Academics and students would still spend money in such “arts-culture centres”, where they could also listen to visiting scholars, discuss ideas and drink coffee. Look how many catering franchises – even on-campus Starbucks – operate as interactive study spaces (as the terminology goes); that is why they are encouraged.

The survival of campus bookstores might well be on a knife edge, but students have not fallen out of love with books. The economics of the high street has transferred to the university campus, but this fate is not inevitable if universities choose otherwise.

In the end, however much academics and students may fall back on Amazon, they will never love it.

Paul Kelly is professor of political philosophy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: University outlets could take a page from co-op model’s book

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Reader's comments (3)

When visiting a Uni for the first time I used to make a point of stopping off at the bookshop. It gave a useful overview and provided a useful baseline for understanding what they did [well]. They were usually efficient at sourcing books not in stock. And I find it more pleasant to get a preview of a book by flicking through its pages than by using online preview. If a Uni can does not support/merit a bookshop I will draw my own conclusion...
I agree the bookshop was a great loss to my campus. It never made money but it should never have been a profit centre, it was a student service. On that basis like any commercial operation it will only stock things of which they can sell lots rather than cater for its largely captive specialist market. It might have run a second hand operation as well -but no it's closed. Shame on all of them who made the decision. I understand someone is suggesting all set texts should be online, so when will we see the death of the library? When will students only use online resources for research and go no deeper.
I fail to understand why anyone working in UKHE would patronize Amazon. It is an acknowledged gross global tax avoider - aggressively. The working conditions at its 'fulfilment centers' are alleged to be atrocious (I have stood with GMB at the Rugeley one on three occasions on this matter). Other bookshops provide a reasonable discount - for example, Blackwells (with free mailing) (and the intention is that at some stage Blackwells will become a staff cooperative). Where's the morality?

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