Whitman bookstore handles its first back to school rush after corporate management switch

Anabelle Dillard, News Reporter

It’s official: as of July 1, the Whitman bookstore went corporate. The subject of management was first broached by administration in the fall of 2020 when financial strain and distance learning called into question the benefits of an independent bookstore. The initial announcement was met with mixed reactions: from hope for cheaper textbooks and faster shipping to concern and anger about putting small stores out of business and the lack of student input.

The Whitman bookstore has products available for purchase on display. Photo by David Lu.

“We acknowledge that this change is difficult, especially for the bookstore employees,” said Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey in a community-wide email on April 21, 2021. “However, the Cabinet believes that this move is in the best interests of our students, faculty and the college.” 

Switching to Barnes & Noble management would, in theory, bring price reductions, wider availability of books, more online textbooks, different merchandise and faster shipping times. Students were also able to pre-order their textbooks through the Barnes & Noble website and pick them up at the bookstore before the start of the semester. 

How do student employees feel about this change? The answer isn’t quite as simple. Senior Piper Olsen started working at the bookstore this semester and spoke to The Wire about their experience.

“Working with a corporation has benefits, and also not-benefits,” said Olsen. “They opened a location in a really small school and no one came down here to help us figure it out, so it was kind of just like everything’s more regulated, but we don’t know what those regulations are.” 

Since the new management also meant an entirely different system in-store, both new and old employees had to learn how to use those systems while simultaneously facing the beginning-of-year rush. 

Another new hire, junior Claire Jenkins, said that the back-to-school sale “was definitely a little hectic, but overall we had enough staff for half of us to work in the back and process orders while the other half checked out customers.”

Both Olsen and Jenkins noted that shipping times were faster. Olsen reported that despite having more online options and access to more used books, costs were about the same. 

Sophomore Aziz Sahbazovic, who worked at the bookstore before and after the management change, was more critical of the switch.

Whitman logo merchandise is still available in the shop. Photo by David Lu.

“I really don’t like how generic and monotonous things are right now compared to last year,” Sahbazovic said. “I really think that the school should reevaluate if this was the best possible decision for students… and they should honestly apologize to previous staff and even students for making this a lot more complicated.” 

He also noted that while some books are cheaper, others are considerably more expensive than before.

“[It] really makes you think about the reasons the school has switched to a third party corporation.” 

Anger over the lack of student input in the decision to change management was a common sentiment when the announcement was first made, leaving many employees wondering if they wanted to continue working at the store. Such sentiments are not uncommon among students and the general public, as a widespread discourse over booksellers has emerged since the rise of Amazon raised concerns about small, independent bookstores being pushed to the sidelines. 

It’s unlikely that the independent-vs-corporate bookstore debate will be settled any time soon, but whether or not the new management at the Whitman bookstore was the best choice is something only time will tell.