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Back Story

Not Your Typical Student

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When Birmingham-Southern College, Birmingham, Alabama, interviewed him for the position of bookstore manager in 1995, William Alexander had two associate degrees and 10 years of experience managing a privately owned bookstore. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the job.

“They were down to three people, and I was the second choice,” he recalls. “The first choice had an undergraduate degree, and 11 months later that person left. Rather than go through the hiring process again, they asked me if I wanted the job and encouraged me to take advantage of the tuition remission program.”

He did. It took 10 years, but Alexander obtained a bachelor of science degree with a major in business and a minor in economics. “I was not your typical undergraduate student,” he admits. “I started working here in 1996 and got the bookstore running well enough to take classes in the summer of 1999. I took one class a term and finished in summer 2009.”

What’s your bookstore’s busiest time? 

The first week of each term. With a staff of four full-time employees, we’re able to handle the rush as long as we get our work studies in. We’re a small school with about 1,400 students. We have three registers going for a day or two. If you’re in the back of the line, the wait is anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.

What was your most traumatic day at work?

At the beginning of the 2001 semester, the hard drive for our register server crashed. We couldn’t use any of our registers. Students needed their books so we formed three different lines. Students came into our offices, and we wrote down with paper and pen what they were buying and let them go.

So how did they pay?

We charged their student accounts. Once we got the hard drive repaired, we ran everything back through the register.  

Your bookstore remains independent. What’s the attraction of affiliating with a chain?

It’s expensive to update an old bookstore, not only in terms of technology but to bring it out of the ’80s or ’90s look. College and university budgets have really been strained. When leasers come in and say, “We’ll give you a brand new bookstore,” it can be enticing.

Have online sales of textbooks cut into your profits?

Oh, sure. Online has changed the landscape of textbook selling dramatically. It’s affected all stores, those that are leased and those that are institutionally run. 

What about digital?

Some customers are very traditional and don’t want any digital versions at all when they read a book. Other customers say, “I don’t care how I get it. Just give me the cheapest, easiest way.” That’s the challenge for bookstores in the future: As generations become more accustomed to digital formats, will we still carry the hard copy? And if everything goes digital, which is easily distributed from the publisher, will we need a local bookstore?

What are some other issues?

Textbook rentals. That’s a big market that has come on strong in the last couple of years. 

What should college bookstores be doing to increase their profits?

They need to run a good textbook operation, which includes renting, to stay viable and keep market share with students. There’s not a lot you can do with the pricing of textbooks. Those great deals that students find online—there’s not enough for the entire class. You might find that $120 textbook for $55 or $60 from an Amazon seller. The next guy might get it for $75. Two people might get a really good deal, and after that, the bookstore is competitive again.

To stay profitable, you have to run a tight operation and keep control of your inventory. At my previous store, which served primarily a community college, we didn’t sell much apparel. Here, we sell a lot of BSC merchandise to alumni and students. It depends on your market. 

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.