This year, Lewis & Clark conceded that the independently run LC bookstore is a financial failure in need of redress. For the 2017 fiscal year, the bookstore reported a net income loss of approximately $112,000. For the past 7 years it has been running independently, it has accrued a total net income loss of approximately $770,000.
Bookstore Manager Janet Kelley attributes this consistent loss to the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) which was passed around the same time that the bookstore decided to go independent.
“That act requires colleges to make public the ISBN numbers for textbooks as soon as the course schedule goes live on the website, and so us having to provide that has given the students the opportunity to search out lower-cost books months in advance,” Kelley said.
To address the loss, the college formed a committee last winter which is chaired by Dean of Students Anna Gonzalez and comprised of student, staff and faculty representatives from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the Graduate School, as well as Common Services staff including alumni, parent programs and athletics.
The committee conducted a LC community survey, which informed them of the need for lower book pricing, more choices in merchandise, a wider selection of books, more events and a more user-friendly website. Simultaneously, the committee examined the operations of the bookstore, researched industry trends and visited the bookstores of nearby colleges like Portland State University (PSU) and Linfield College.
The committee has decided that the best solution is to abandon the independent bookstore venture and search for an external business partner.
“It wasn’t a cutthroat decision, and the decision was made easier when we saw the potential of what (partnering with a company) could be for our students,” Gonzalez said. “They’re vendors and we’re educators. Running a bookstore isn’t really our expertise.”
A common cause for student opposition to company intervention is the belief that prices will rise. According to Kelley, one of the reasons that the bookstore went private approximately 8 years ago was because students were resentful of a corporation running the bookstore — Barnes & Noble at the time —and boycotted it.
Kelley expects that this transition will negatively impact the student body.
“Based on my knowledge of other college bookstores that have been outsourced, my understanding of what these corporations do is they are a corporation to make money. If we’re not making money now, how are they going to make money? Raising prices. They’re going to raise prices and they’re going to cut staff,”
Associate Vice President for Finance and committee member Andrea Dooley disagrees.
“From a student affordability perspective, I believe in the economies of scale. If you’re working with a partner who has the purchasing power to say, ‘well, we have 450 stores,’ and to work with publishers to get pricing, that is going to give the student a better price than when you’re Lewis and Clark bookstore” Dooley said. “When you’re a small store, I really do think that that leads to higher prices.”
Kelley also expects merchandise options to decline.
“It’s a small bookstore and so they’re going to stock it accordingly, there probably won’t be any art supplies or any unique products. It’s going to be standardized as to what’s going to sell.”
In contrast, Dooley said, “We were doing major ordering once per year, but most vendors do it four times per year. So just the cycling through of options, merchandise will really improve.”
There is a guarantee that the college will not suffer financial loss with a partner, because the vendor will absorb the losses and still pay the contractually agreed upon commission to the college.
“We won’t be losing money. I don’t think anybody (at LC) is interested in making the bookstore a money-making venture; our goal with the independent bookstore was to break even,” Dooley said. “What (a partnership) can do, since we know we won’t be losing money, is we can focus on other areas of the college where resources are needed and not worry about trying to cover a loss.”
Currently, the committee is evaluating the requests for proposal (RFPs) that were submitted by vendors, two of which are Barnes & Noble and Follett. Representatives from potential partners will be visiting the college during the first week of October to present their positions to the Deans, department chairs and program directors from both the Graduate school and CAS, fifteen ASLC senators, the Provost and the committee.
“From those presentations and meetings we’ll make a decision about which one feels like a better fit,” Dooley said. “It’s really about culture and fit and what feels like it will be a better partnership with the college.”
“I think that it is a really good committee,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone there cares about the student experience, the college ethos of ‘is this space going to look like Lewis & Clark?’”
Regarding college culture, Gonzalez said that a new partnership will also open up opportunities for LC to have a conversation about its values, specifically in reference to the unethical business practices used to produce the cheap apparel sold in the bookstore. She pointed out that a partner could provide the infrastructure and level of sophistication necessary to address issues such as these.
Gonzalez also spoke about the possibility for the bookstore vendor to team up with Bon Appetit as other schools have done and make the bookstore another social hub or coffee shop.
In August, the administration communicated to the bookstore staff that a transition will occur this year, and that they are guaranteed the opportunity to interview with the new vendor should they so choose. They also offered a severance package to incentivize the current staff to stay through the transition period.