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Books take a back seat as UBC Bookstore expands

A massive expansion is about to provide the UBC Bookstore with much more room for shopping, eating, and studying –…

By Garrett Hinchey , in Business Culture , on November 26, 2012 Tags: , , ,

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A massive expansion is about to provide the UBC Bookstore with much more room for shopping, eating, and studying – but not for books.

First proposed to UBC’s board of governors in April, the 5,500-square-foot expansion includes increased store space, a larger café, and a convenience store, as well as bringing the store’s entrance up to street level. Construction is expected to begin in early 2013 and be completed by September.

But the specifics of the expansion reflect the struggles the store has been having with book sales for years.

It has also ignited a debate about the function of a bookstore on a university campus. Some view it as an important intellectual institution, while others believe it should change with the times — and make some money.

Debbie Harvie, the bookstore’s managing director, is passionate about books, but has accepted the non-book-centric expansion as an inevitability.

“It’s like a death by a thousand cuts watching the book business change,” Harvie said. “Trade books, especially. Textbooks, a bit slower, but digital is coming.”

Extra, extra… read all about it?

Harvie acknowledged that, although the bookstore expansion is partly designed to enhance campus life, it’s also about confronting a new financial reality in a changing industry.

“General book sales in the store have been going down between 10 and 15 per cent annually for the last five years,” she said. “For me, flat is the new up. That part of our business is very challenged.”

The digital era has brought with it a myriad of challenges for bookstores, including competition from e-books and online sellers like Amazon. An October 2012 report from non-profit industry group BookNet Canada found that only a third of books are bought at bookstores, with the rest bought online or at big-box stores. 

With book sales dropping, the UBC Bookstore has changed its focus to retail goods such as branded clothing, which provide higher profit margins and are the bookstore’s fastest-growing sellers, according to Harvie.

A model of the bookstore expansion, displayed to the UBC community at a November 14 open house. (Photo: Garrett Hinchey)

The bookstore is also hoping to become a “hub of campus activity,” said Harvie, by adding a full café and second floor study space, both designed to enhance university life and secure repeat visitors.

Refocusing the priorities of the bookstore away from print books may be the reality for a changing industry, but many people within UBC are opposed to such a shift.

“I’m wary about any expansion that eliminates the bookstore, either in name or space,” said Kim Snowden, professor of women’s and gender studies at UBC. “More space for the bookstore in general is great, and I fully support that.

“But it still needs to be – and be called – a bookstore.”

Snowden is referring to 2011 plans to rename the store “UBC Central,” an idea that was eventually scrapped after backlash from the university community, including an online petition that amassed nearly 900 signatures, including many faculty members.

Even though book sales are dropping, the bookstore’s position as a pillar of university culture is a principle that many at UBC still support, according to Snowden.

“Intellectually and culturally, it’s important to a university campus. I did notice that the bookstore put up a public board for customers to comment on what they would like to see in the expansion,” she said. “Most of them said: ‘More books!’”

Feeling the pull

The bookstore may be the latest battleground between academic and financial motivations at UBC, but changing fiscal realities could see this tension take even greater prominence in the coming years.

Faced with increasing costs due to student financial assistance and maintenance charges, as well as mandated wage increases, UBC is feeling the strain of fixed funding from the B.C. government.

According to UBC’s latest budget presentation, this current model is “unsustainable,” and after 2014 “it is difficult to forsee what efficiency gains would be left in the system short of cutting student services.”

Further cost-cutting “is of grave concern to UBC,” said Andrew Glynn, director of management reporting and budgeting for UBC. “We do not want this to affect the kind of experience our students have. There are some options on the revenue side, and we continue to advocate for a stronger commitment from our governments to post-secondary education.”

Barring this stronger commitment, though, revenue-generating moves like the bookstore’s retail expansion are likely to take greater precedence in the future.

For Harvie, though, the expansion is “a dream,” no matter the circumstances.

“It’s always been our dream to go up to street level. The architects have done a great job, and I think it’s a new chapter for the bookstore.

“I’m really excited.”