Lessons for Higher Ed from the Survival of Independent Bookstores

Another day, another report of an independent bookstore … doing pretty well.

After some apocalyptic years, indie bookstores have been having something of a resurgence. This warms my heart, but it has also got me thinking about what, if any, lessons there are for higher education in the perhaps surprising, even unlikely, prospering of indie bookstores in a seemingly hostile market. Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli has been studying the success of indie bookstores, and his findings offer some interesting guidelines for those of us who are thinking about how to survive in a rapaciously capitalist era.

I was struck by a lot things David Sandberg, co-owner of the wonderful Porter Square Books, said in the video accompanying the Raffaelli press release linked above. “If we see our product as books,” he says, “and what we compete on is price — we lose. If we don’t see our product as books, if we see our product as a service and a community (of which books are one piece) well, then we can compete.”

Community is one of the key factors Raffaelli’s research has revealed in indie bookstores’ success (not to any bookseller’s surprise, I expect). Sandberg makes the point that no indie bookstore can compete on price with Amazon, no indie bookstore is going to build a better website than Amazon, etc., but they can compete on experience, particularly the physical, in-person experience of interacting with knowledgeable staff and attending live events such as signings. Further, they can be local by design — they can partner with other local businesses and work together, both creating new community opportunities and being good members of the community that exists. That sort of community synergy is not something Amazon can achieve.

Toward the end of the video, Raffaelli, good Harvard Biz guy that he is, says that when he started studying indie bookstores, he assumed there would be fierce competition between them, especially within the same neighborhoods. But that’s not what he found. Independent booksellers work together, he says, because they don’t just want to save their own stores — they want to preserve “the category as a whole.” In a wonderful piece about bookstores in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, an owner says, “Bookstores are really good about sending people from store to store. It’s not one of those dog-eat-dog businesses like some industries are. We’re real good about sending people back and forth from store to store.”

This is a community ethos, an ethos of mutual aid. It was developed out of desperation, but also out of the core values that led people to want to open bookstores in the first place. (Nobody with even the shreddiest shred of knowledge ever said, “I want to get rich really fast — I’m gonna open a BOOKSTORE!”) Like most things of value, bookstores don’t do well in an environment of rampant capitalism. Yet that is the environment we all find ourselves in today. We have to acknowledge that, and then work hard to carve out some space for ourselves where the capitalism is less rampant and our values can survive, or even, ideally, flourish. None of us are going to end the late capitalist horrorshow ruining countless lives every day, but we can work together to alleviate some of its symptoms and open new possibilities for better ways of being.

What would happen, I wondered as I read about bookstores, if those of us in higher education saw part of our responsibility to be to the category as a whole? I’m not entirely sure, partly because I’m not entirely sure what the category as a whole for us is. I am inclined to think it’s not quite as broad as higher education. I am more inclined to think of it as public higher education or even public schooling.

I’m writing this soon after the FBI arrested a bunch of rich and sometimes famous people who tried to bribe their kids’ way into wealthy, prestigious colleges. There are important things to say about all this (particularly the cynical way these people used disability provisions), but unfortunately it keeps the focus on rich schools that are basically hedge funds with universities attached. These schools have many powers in our society, and graduating from them can convey significant privileges. But only a small percentage of the U.S. population attends such schools, and there have always been ways for the rich to bribe or bluster their way in, most of them perfectly legal. (Hello, Jared.) But I think it is more important to spend our time thinking about the other schools, the ones that are being systematically defunded even as the hedge fund universities see their endowments grow to absurd levels. We need to care about the schools that educate the majority of people, the schools that struggle for resources and yet provide excellent educations. As Cathy Davidson said on Twitter, “Education for social mobility, not perpetuation of inequality, has to be the inverse and opposite of pretty much everything we do to recruit to elite institutions. …And it is one reason why the defunding of public education is tragic.”

Rich people don’t scheme to get their kids into highly selective schools just because those schools offer good educations. They scheme to get their kids into such schools so as to maintain class privilege and status. What horrible thing, we might ask, do they think will happen if their children go to the types of schools that the vast majority of American kids go to?

Meanwhile, the idea of public education as a public good is taking a beating as state funding for higher education continues to decline. I work at a public university in a state that’s never been very interested in public funding for public education, and even our paltry funding took a massive cut in 2012 from which we have yet to recover. This devaluing of public education is a major obstacle, though hardly the only one. In addition to (or as part of) that devaluing, we’ve also got to contend with the deep neoliberalism with which, in Peter-Wim Zuidhof’s words, universities “have been reimagined in market terms and become suffused with market rationalities”; we’ve got to contend with the impoverishment of an entire generation of students via educational loans; we’ve got to contend with a cynical, instrumental anti-intellectualism wielded to silence ideas that don’t jibe with corporate priorities; we’ve got to contend with — well, you can probably make your own list…

The concern for, and even loyalty to, the category as a whole leads directly to the support and development of community. For bookstores, it’s a community of both booksellers and book readers, with the sellers (like the writers and publishers) being readers as well, and having come to the business via their love of reading. Something similar is true for teachers and learners in a school setting. Learning is what we love. Just as writers are drawn to their work from a mix of wanting to create what they have loved reading and from a desire to create what they have yet to see in the world, so teachers are often inspired into their career by the great teachers they’ve had, as well as by a desire to be the kind of teacher they dreamed of encountering.

We can learn many things on our own, and we can learn much informally (indeed, most of human history is a history of informal learning), but what schools offer is the opportunity to participate in learning with other people, the opportunity to learn alongside. I suppose this is why I feel generally indifferent to the growing movement for individualized learning. Such atomized education has its place — there are, of course, times when we just need to do stuff on our own, either to catch up with others or to satisfy a personal curiosity; times when we need to learn in our own way. It can be tremendously satisfying, but it’s not what we need schools for. Learning alongside other people may not be efficient in certain ways, but it is irreplaceable in many others, some of them broadly social (democracy relies on it, because democracy is governance with and alongside other citizens), some of them more personal. I think often of Isaac Asimov’s prescient 1951 story “The Fun They Had”, a tale of children educated by computers, children who don’t know what books are good for or why anyone would learn anything together. The children are bored and sad, disconnected from the world and themselves. (To me, it’s a horror story, yet to many advocates of educational technology, the dystopia Asimov outlines is the end goal.)

If we think about the success of indie bookstores, one lesson for higher education is to think about what we do that can’t easily be replicated or improved through other means. What is it that these rather unwieldy institutions called schools offer that couldn’t be found in any other form? Is what is offered of value? How can we focus more on that uniqueness and heighten the value?

I keep thinking of in-person experience and community as two features we ought to focus on, features that schools, like bookstores, are especially well positioned to strengthen and benefit from.

In-person experience is something educators ought to celebrate at least as much as indie bookstores do. In a world where “human contact is now a luxury good”, bookstores and schools support a similar need: the need to be with other people in the same place at the same time. It ties in with another quality that bookstores have used to great advantage: the local. My own school has done some pretty neat things by linking local and in-person advantages. For instance, our meteorology program works closely with the Mount Washington Observatory. That’s just one example of how we’ve quite deliberately made our location into an asset for our students’ educations, and I expect in coming years that we will see more and more such location-based work, because it makes no sense to try to attract students to a school that could be anywhere. We can’t compete with wealthy schools that can offer everything under the sun. But those schools can’t compete with us for what we have in our immediate surroundings, whether it be natural resources, history, or particular sorts of people and organizations.

Localism doesn’t need to be a trap, though. Again, bookstores have shown the way. My own go-to indie bookstore is Gibson’s in Concord, New Hampshire. Gibson’s is hugely supportive of local writers and readers, but the staff also work hard to bring in ideas and writers from across the region and the country — sometimes through events where patrons read and discuss books from a wide variety of places, but also by having authors themselves visit. That’s standard practice for bookstores these days, but a store like Gibson’s faces some of the same challenges as small rural colleges do in terms of attracting visitors. There’s not a ton of money or prestige to throw around, and the location is a bit out of the way of any big city. Where a writer can visit, say, Boston, and within the same day go to multiple bookstores without a whole lot of effort, that’s not the case for central New Hampshire. We’re a straight shot up the highway from Boston, but it’s multiple hours roundtrip. Ingenuity and hospitality are key. I’ve known multiple writers who have come up to Gibson’s to read from their new books because they liked the people and atmosphere. That’s partly what keeps me going back to Gibson’s and spending more money on books there than I would had I ordered those books on Amazon. The layout of the store, the knowledgeable and friendly staff, the careful selection of stock, the café, the comfy chairs — this all contributes to an experience of place, an experience that can’t be replicated by Gibson’s online competitors. It is, as the Biz School people say, value added.

Community is the other value that indie bookstores clearly succeed with, and which colleges and universities need to pay close attention to. It’s a common word, one thrown around a lot in educational circles, but I think we too often take a superficial approach.

A whole book could be written about community and how schools foster it (or don’t), but here I want to focus on one aspect: building community inside the school itself through the work of learning. There are all sorts of other worthwhile aspects to cover, such as how the school fits into, supports, and helps nurture the local community, but that’s a topic for another time and for somebody, frankly, more knowledgeable about it than I. (I know the insides of schools better than I know the outsides! Social scientists could probably say more about community within institutions than I can, but I’ve been lucky to attend and to work at schools that really did build and sustain communities … and I’ve attended and worked at schools that really struggled with it. I’ve learned some things from those experiences, and am still learning.)

First, I always go back to the simple lessons I discussed here back in September: that we flourish in places where we feel known, needed, and cared for. How we create and sustain such feelings is the hard part, and everybody probably always fails at it to some extent or another, but I often repeat those three words to myself as a kind of mantra or mnemonic, a way to recenter myself when it feels like things are going badly. How can I help other people here feel known, needed, cared for? How can I find it for myself?

While individual actions are important to fostering and enlivening community, institutions also shape the possibilities. There are smart, generous, creative people everywhere, but their efforts will either be magnified or impeded by the structures through which they have to work. You can have an institution that talks about community all the time and publishes beautiful brochures and websites promoting ideas of community, but if that institution also has a habit of firing its workers seemingly at random, the platitudes about community will collapse in hypocrisy. If people are feeling demoralized because they don’t understand how decisions are made that affect their daily lives, giving them the occasional free cup of coffee is only going to re-energize people in the way that pouring salt on a wound would. Again: known, needed, cared for. It’s hard to feel any of that when the message of your employer is that you are disposable. It’s hard to feel that you have any say in the shape of your own world when the Powers That Be constantly reconfigure the landscape on a whim. It’s hard to feel like you are working in a community of people when all the words and actions of the leaders emphasize finance rather than humanity.

What would it mean for a school to be a community in which every member is devoted to the work of learning? I don’t have any clear answer, and I suspect the question is too big for any one person to answer, anyway, no matter their expertise, but I think it’s a vital question for us to ask ourselves as we think about what we want our schools to be. The question itself may be too vast to be answerable, but it may be useful as a prompt for thought and lens for action. Are the things we are spending time on things that support a community devoted to the work of learning? How are we bringing every member of the community in?

For instance, I think immediately of the tendency to see teaching as the job of faculty, learning as the job of students, and support as the job of staff. But that doesn’t make sense in a community devoted to the work of learning. All of those are absolutely necessary roles, but if your teachers and staff aren’t learning, if your students and staff aren’t teaching, and if your faculty and students aren’t doing support work … then your community isn’t as effective and powerful as it could be.

Here’s another question that comes out of the above: Who gets to be a visionary? In a strong community, everybody gets to shape and participate in the vision to some extent or another, particulary as it relates to their own life and knowledge. In a weak community, the vision is handed down from on high.

In-person experiences and community-building can work together, but they don’t necessarily have to, so long as they aren’t working against each other. We can adapt the values and benefits of one for the other. We can have online education and asynchronous distance learning if we still ask ourselves how such education and learning can be used to create and foster community. Technology is a tool, and like any tool, we have to ask of it: How does this support a community in which every member is devoted to the work of learning? Many of us have experienced real community via the internet. As we talk about online education, I would be thrilled to see more attention paid to how to build a healthy online community. The content and systems will take care of themselves, and there’s no need for the latest and highest of tech if principles of community-building are strong. There’s a lot about online education and educational technology that makes me wary, and some things that I find flat-out nauseating, but I am very much in support of using computer technology to enhance community — a harder task than most others for which tech gets used in education, but also a significantly more worthwhile task.

Much more could be said, and probably ought to be said, by people who have studied these things more deeply than I. But I also think we need to be careful not to drown in abstruse language and Rube Goldberg taxonomies: two dangers for any expert. Useful philosophies aren’t overly simple but rather are concentrations of complex thought, tools for opening doors that reveal vistas. The independent bookstores that are surviving these days are not ones whose managers proposed vast systems of novelty, but ones that returned to their basic values and asked what everybody who meets within the space of the bookstore desires and needs. They are stores that identified the values that established them in the first place, the values that made workers want to show up to work and customers want to shop there, and then matched those values with the constantly uncertain, and often hostile, environment of contemporary society. By doing so, these bookstores are also influencing that environment, reconfiguring parts of it back toward what the stores and their customers consider important for a good life.

Schools face at least as challenging, and daunting, a task — and opportunity.

Image: Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Harrisburg, PA. Photo by Petrichor, Wikimedia Commons

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