Michigan Book & Supply closed in March, leaving two campus textbook stores standing: Ulrich’s and Barnes & Noble @ the University of Michigan. Ulrich’s isn’t out of danger: like Michigan Book, it’s owned by the Nebraska Book Company, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A much smaller competitor, Shaman Drum, whose textbook division served mostly the humanities, folded in 2009.
That’s a lot of textbook carnage in a short time. With B&N’s lease for its Michigan Union store up for renewal this year, the question needs to be asked: is there a future for the local college textbook store?
It was Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum, who first alerted Ann Arbor that textbook stores were in crisis. In an open letter to the community in 2009, he claimed that “it’s impossible for local textbook stores to compete.” Saving Shaman Drum instantly became a cause for several hundred U-M faculty and concerned citizens, who signed a petition bemoaning “the university’s policy that favors Internet shopping by students.”
The “university policy” was the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act. HEOA is, among other things, a kind of “truth in advertising” law that obliges universities to disclose titles and prices of required textbooks early rather than a few days before classes begin, so that students won’t be stuck with hundreds of dollars in unexpected fees. But as Pohrt found out, early disclosure tempted students to shop for textbooks online–even when local store prices were competitive.
Just how many students are making Amazon their textbook supplier these days? And was that what brought Nebraska Book Company to bankruptcy?
Ulrich’s staff is not allowed to answer such questions, and the Nebraska Books media line didn’t return calls. Brad Braun, Barnes & Noble’s local manager of textbook sales, says he as yet has no official news about whether the company will renew its lease in the Michigan Union. But Braun was happy to discuss the textbook industry from his vantage point–and, full of plans for the future, he certainly didn’t sound as though his store was going anywhere.
Braun doesn’t see HEOA as an enemy: “The biggest challenge that all textbook dealers have is getting the information from the faculty early enough to deal with it properly. Getting it the week before classes start doesn’t help anyone.”
Nor is he particularly concerned about the Internet, because Barnes & Noble is the Internet. The college division’s e-trade platform is solid and user friendly, and it doesn’t deal only in new books. With 600 stores nationwide (compared to Nebraska’s 240 stores), B&N can maintain a large enough used-book inventory to compete with Amazon.
Another e-threat to textbook sales is the e-book itself, but B&N is on that one too. The company has developed Nook Study; the free Mac- or PC-compatible software is one of the major publishing formats for e-textbooks. Nook Study is not the same as B&N’s Nook e-reader, emphasizes Braun: “The Nook, and that other one that starts with a K, are for pleasure reading. I love my Nook, but I wouldn’t want to read a textbook on it.” Nook Study runs on regular computers, but not on mobile devices such as the Nook or Kindle.
E-textbooks and course packs, Braun says, haven’t killed the old-fashioned textbook. “There are very few courses that don’t use a [print] book in some form or another, whether it’s the two-inch-thick chemistry book, or a smaller book to supplement a course pack.”
Textbooks fill about half of the store in the Michigan Union. The other half, says store manager Cheryl Hollowood, is “spirit gear” (translation: maize and blue sweatshirts and T-shirts), pens and notebooks, and … more books! Hollowood says the store’s selection of trade books–especially cookbooks and children’s books, “the books people most like to put their hands on”–will soon be expanded to fill the vacuum left by Borders.
Barnes & Noble @ the University of Michigan, 530 S. State St. (Michigan Union), 995-8877. Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sun. umichigan.bncollege.com