Bound in Chains
Will Seattle University's Independent Bookstore Go Corporate?
On Thursday, May 14, Dr. Ron Smith, Seattle University's vice president for finance and business affairs, sent an e-mail to the faculty and staff that read, in part: "Over the next few weeks, Seattle University, under my direction, will conduct a process to determine whether it makes sense for us to partner with an external company to run our bookstore operations." There are several companies that serve this purpose, but there's only one goliath in the industry: Over the last 20 years, Barnes & Noble has quietly leased the operations of over 600 university bookstores nationwide. Thanks to clever branding camouflage, many times it's almost impossible to notice when a college bookstore is owned by Barnes & Noble; the bookstores for North Seattle Community College, Seattle Central Community College, and Seattle Pacific University are all lease partners with B&N.
The SU Bookstore is a relatively modest affair if you're a browser interested in general topics. There are a few shelves of general-interest titles, and books by Chuck Palahniuk and Stephenie Meyer are on the store's best-seller list. On a recent visit, several employees who asked to remain anonymous were grumbling about the potential change in management. Even though Smith's e-mail stated, "We will insist that members of our staff be provided opportunities to remain in their current or similar positions," the booksellers were openly skeptical. "That's just not true," one of them said.
The numbers seem back up the bookseller: A list of bookstore-outsourcing facts prepared by SU staffers that was given to The Stranger claims lease operators usually keep their average payroll at about 8 percent of total expenses. The SU Bookstore estimates that if the corporate averages were applied to their store, four full-time positions would be lost. And lease operators do not allow for work-study positions, while SU Bookstore provides $100,000 annually in work-study and financial-aid assistance.
Of course, this would all be a moot point if the SU Bookstore were losing money; chains like B&N are experts at squeezing profit from even the most fallow stores. But leaked financial records for the SU Bookstore show that last year the store made an 11 percent profit—$538,996, almost double the industry standard of 6.1 percent profit—making it one of the few bookstores in Seattle to turn a profit last year. And because it's a nonprofit wholly owned by the university, all of that money returned to SU.
One anonymous bookseller, by e-mail, theorized that the only money SU would save from leasing the bookstore would be through a leaser's probable reduction of employee benefits. Another bookseller who is also an SU student said that if the university leases the store, "I would feel disillusioned about a [university] that I took to be an institution that did want to make a positive change in the world" and that expected students to "engage compassionately and thoughtfully both on campus and in the world at large."
Of course the employees are upset, but the switch could potentially be bad news for customers, too: Corporate leasers generally charge more for school-branded merchandise and are less likely to carry a wide selection of used textbooks, which currently makes up 40 percent of the inventory at SU Bookstore.
Dr. Smith forwarded The Stranger's requests for comments to Soon Beng Yeap, the assistant VP for marketing at University Communications. Yeap forwarded that request to Casey Corr, SU's director of strategic communications. In lieu of commenting, Corr re-sent a copy of Dr. Smith's original letter and said to "please make sure it's clear to your readers that no decision has been made."