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How about a bookstore of … books?

Darryl Campbell | Monday, March 31, 2008

I sometimes wonder if the proposal for Eddy Street Commons really is going to create the “college town” atmosphere it’s supposed to. After all, the centerpieces of the development are supposedly the two hotels and the condominiums in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which most people here don’t really need and probably can’t afford – unless the goal of the developing company is to try and recreate the Granger experience closer to campus.

But questionable residential choices aside, it seems that the real potential for creating that college town feel is in its retail sector. And the cornerstone of any college town is its bookstore. Of course, Notre Dame already has the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, and by all accounts it’s doing quite well for itself. After all, it just put up that billboard right up the road from Barnes & Noble on Grape and it’s expanding its southern wing so that it will soon have over 2,500 more square feet, which will be used to create dedicated space for, among other things, Steiner Sports Marketing & Memorabilia Inc., Adidas apparel, a gelato machine and pretzel bar for the café.

Now, this might be an outdated concept, but I was under the impression that bookstores were supposed to mostly sell books rather than merchandise. Right now, it seems like the area of Hammes dedicated to books is roughly equal to that dedicated to apparel, merchandise, and other non-bookish things. Granted, the expansion will free up another 1,000 square feet in the textbook area (which is only fully stocked for a few weeks every term), but once it’s complete, it will be hard to make the case that Hammes isn’t a giant gift store with a book section attached. After all, the bookstore has demonstrated that their primary goal is making a killing off of merchandise and overpriced coursepacks (just to take an example from personal experience, charging $35 for a 100-page packet of bibliographical information that was not under copyright). And now Hammes (whose parent company is Follett, an international corporation with annual revenues of $2.3 billion) has also expressed interested in opening up a bookstore in the Eddy Street development.

I’m not trying to engage in shrill anti-corporate hysteria or demanding that we transplant Powell’s from Portland or The Strand from New York (although Powell’s does have branches in Chicago – maybe they’d be open to one in South Bend, too). Instead, I’m just trying to make sense of the fact that in the University’s bookstore, there are shelves of Notre Dame rugs and beer steins alongside cases of signed football helmets and babydoll Ts with “Notre Dame” in that faded baseball-jersey font in such school colors as pink and sky blue, but no sections for used, remainder, rare or out-of-print books, a rather stingy buyback policy, no membership or rewards program that I know of, no posted best-selling or prize-winning lists or even staff recommendations. The books section is well-stocked and well-organized, but still feels sterile and just a little bit neglected, and really if someone wants a no-frills book browsing experience, they might as well go to Amazon.com, where the selection is larger and you might even get a bit of a price break to make up for the five-day free shipping. As far as bookstores go, Hammes is doing the Tchotchke’s-from-Office-Space bare minimum in terms of, well, pieces of flair.

There’s nothing wrong with selling school merchandise and memorabilia. What would be nice, however, is that we get a bookstore where you actually want to spend time browsing and reading, one that makes you want to come back to it and not just to go once a term for your required textbooks. If Hammes or its parent company can shift gears from trying to make our collective wallets a little lighter to actually setting up a good bookstore, then it wouldn’t be so bad to have them in Eddy Street Commons. But if not, the space should go to an independent retailer, or at least someone who dedicates more floor space to books than to footballs.

Darryl Campbell is a first-year graduate student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.