Whitman considering corporate management for college bookstore

Grace Jackson, Staff Writer

Whitman’s independent bookstore may be going corporate.

President Kathy Murray’s cabinet has been considering transitioning to external corporate management since the beginning of this semester, according to Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey.

Independent college bookstores are affiliated with the college or university and are not part of a larger chain. However, some colleges contract companies like Barnes and Noble Educational (B&NE) and Follett to run their bookstores.

Harvey said the College is considering the switch from independent to corporate because of COVID-19-related financial strain and challenges stemming from distance learning.

“One reason is to see if there is a more efficient way to provide these services to our students and broader community given the financial challenges of the pandemic and Whitman not being able to be in person at this time,” Harvey said in an email to The Wire.

Harvey also cited the potential for more affordable options for students like digital textbooks and expanded rentals as a potential plus for chain management.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend in college bookstores was away from independent management and towards B&NE and Follett. The College has considered making the switch in the past but ultimately decided against it; Harvey estimated it’s been considered twice in the past 20 years.

“Both times I did not believe it made sense to make a change,” he said.

COVID-19 is the new and potentially decisive factor in this year’s deliberations. The pandemic has changed the way the bookstore operates. The bookstore closed completely on March 24 in accordance with state law, and has been slowly returning to normal operations.

Currently the bookstore is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for curbside pickup at Reid Campus Center. They also ship orders through the College post office to customers, according to their Facebook page.

Illustration by Lily Buller.

At Whitman, the bookstore is supposed to be entirely financially self-sufficient. It is categorized as an auxiliary expense in the 2018-2019 Consolidated Financial Statement. Auxiliary expenses are “managed as an essentially self-supporting activity.” This year’s consolidated financial statement has not yet been released.

COVID-19 has damaged the college bookstore industry as a whole, including the big management companies. Publicly-traded B&NE reported a 42.2% decrease in sales in the first quarter of this year compared to the same quarter last year. Retail sales are generated through the nearly 1,500 college, university and K-12 school bookstores they operate.

Junior Joshua Tang worked as an accounting assistant at the bookstore last school year. He said that a lot of attention went into making sure the bookstore kept a balanced budget.

“From what I saw they had to figure out how many books they should order, how many can they sell and balance that,” Tang said.