McConnell's bookstore changes pave way for more focus on community needs
If there's one word that defines Chief Business Officer Dave McConnell's approach to his job, it's "intentional." That's a word he uses often as he talks about his work with the Kenyon bookstore, which has included making a number of changes, some of which have been controversial, in the past few months.
"It is through taking intentional actions that we find success stories," says McConnell, who adds that he strives to develop the strengths of each of the areas reporting to him. "I encourage the people in my areas to use their imagination and try new things. The worst that can happen is we make a mistake. We can fix mistakes, but we only get that opportunity if we try some new and different approaches."
The first person to hold the chief business officer's position, McConnell joined Kenyon this past summer. He knows from experience the challenges inherent in making changes in a community institution. He learned it during the two decades he spent at Grinnell College, where he ran the dining halls and served as the town's mayor, and at Washington and Lee University, where he held the post of business manager before coming to Kenyon.
Immediately upon arriving at the College, he set out to learn more about each of the areas for which he has responsibility, to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The bookstore, a traditional source of pride for the College, seems not to be meeting needs as well as it might--as evidenced by the fact that it lost more than $144,000 during the 2004-05 fiscal year. Included in that figure was about $50,000 in "dead" inventory, some of it as much as fifteen years old.
"The bookstore has two missions: to be a business and to be a community center," says McConnell. "We can't pursue one mission to the exclusion of the other." To bring the two missions into balance, he began working with staff to give the top-selling items in the bookstore--the first three are books, food, and clothing (and similar items) imprinted with Kenyon logos--their due in prominence and square footage. That meant doing away with the rarely used CD section, reducing the space devoted to greeting cards, and bringing books, Kenyon authors, and a comfortable reading space right up front. In addition, comestibles were consolidated and, to make the store both more customer friendly and more staff friendly, McConnell set about straightening aisles, minimizing clutter, and opening up the front of the store to let in more light and to encourage more commerce with those passing by in the village.
"We want the bookstore to have a fresher look, and a more appealing presentation, not just for students but for alumni, parents, and other customers, too," says McConnell, who believes the store is, and should be, a work-in-progress, adjusting to the community's needs and interests. "We also want more comfortable reading areas in the store."
McConnell is seeking input on what the bookstore should be offering the community, noting that he does not want the store to compete with Middle Ground or the Village Market. Instead, McConnell wants to add merchandise and services that the bookstore--and the village--currently lack. At the top of his list are a technology department and a program of book signings and readings by visiting writers and the College's own authors.
One of the most persistent rumors about McConnell's plans for the bookstore is that he intends to remove the "castle," the bookcase-cum-climbing-tower that now dominates the children's section. While he says there has been no decision about the castle, McConnell believes the bookstore needs a children's literature area that allows for more interaction between children and their parents and grandparents. He would like to see regular "story times" scheduled at the bookstore, with volunteer readers and visiting authors.
At a PACT-sponsored open meeting with administrators and staff members during Common Hour on November 15, McConnell often drew smiles from the crowd, as he answered every question which had been submitted to PACT. Asked whether there would be more changes to come in the bookstore, he replied, "Absolutely. Jack Finefrock has done a terrific job with the store, making it a wonderful asset to the community. To maintain that quality, it's important to update to meet current needs."
Like every other aspect of its operations, the bookstore's tradition of being open long hours, 365 days a year, is being examined by McConnell. In fact, to give employees more time to spend with their families, he has decided to shorten opening hours on Thanksgiving and Christmas. "We value people at Kenyon," says McConnell. "We need to be intentional about making that clear."