Thursday, July 28, 2005

News: UT at Austin Recruits . . . a Bookstore

At 40 acres, the University of Texas at Austin has one of the largest urban campuses of any educational institution in the country, but there is no general bookstore within walking distance of the school. (The UT Co-op stocks only texts and nonbook items.) This was not always so: until this spring, when it closed, there was a Barnes & Noble superstore across the street from the school's main entrance, along what's called the Drag. A short time later, a branch of Half Price Books that was also on the Drag moved to a larger location farther uptown.

The absence did not go unnoticed by members of the faculty, including English professor Jim Garrison and others, who circulated an open letter to the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts Richard Lariviere and other administrators asking them to remedy the situation.

The letter, as quoted by the Austin American-Statesman, read in part: "We have now become the only major university in the country without a bookstore. . . . This development is deeply embarrassing for us as a center of intellectual excellence. It has immediate practical consequences, as well, for the UT community no longer has a place to browse for new books and current journals or magazines, to satisfy curiosity about new areas of interest, or simply to be surprised to find writings of unexpected interest. . . . The 'Drag' without a bookstore runs counter to the University's oft-repeated goal of excellence. Accordingly, I, along with others, ask the UT administration immediately to take the initiative in restoring bookstore facilities on or near the campus."

Dean Lariviere told Shelf Awareness he'd received approximately a dozen letters from faculty and confirmed that the University has had very preliminary discussions with bookstores, including Labyrinth Books, which has locations in New York City near Columbia University and New Haven, Conn., near Yale.

The University, Lariviere said, is "still open to negotiating with other stores. What we're looking for is someone who will serve this unique community of 80,000 people who are interested in something beyond a chain bookstore. The Barnes & Noble did moderately well here, but no better than they would have in an average strip mall. They basically didn't adapt their offerings to this market."

The dean emphasized that the University wants a store that will be a destination for scholars visiting the school as well as students and faculty. Acknowledging the challenges academic bookstores face from the Internet, he said he feels some nostalgia for bookstores of yore and the cross fertilizations that browsing in those stores offered. "What's missing is the open-stack shopping experience like the great bookstores of the past offered to scholars and scientist. I remember when you could go into into Paul's in Madison [Wis.] and walk up and down the philosophy section and the biology section, and maybe you saw a book you'd read a review of and just buy the book immediately. That sort of thing doesn't happen on Amazon.com."

Booksellers interested in opening a store at the University of Texas should contact Kevin Hegarty, the University CFO, by e-mail at hegarty@mail.utexas.edu or by phone at 512-471-1422.

This article originally appeared in Shelf Awareness (www.shelf-awareness.com)

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