Bookstore search continues
The search for new leadership at the Kenyon bookstore will continue, as the committee charged with choosing a manager reports that it hasn't yet found the right fit for the College's needs and character.
The search produced only sixteen candidates, none of whom proved acceptable. The committee also seriously considered a proposal from Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, but rejected the proposed contract last week on the grounds that, while promising, it raised questions about the company's commitment to all of Kenyon's priorities.
The committee also turned down a proposal from Follett Higher Education Group, another major college bookstore management company. According to members of the committee, the consideration given the corporate proposals reflects the reality of the contemporary book-selling industry, in which online companies and big-box retailers have the greatest resources and best access to diverse titles.
The nine-member committee, which began work last fall, held two open forums and solicited community opinions with a survey. While it was clear that people felt strongly about the bookstore, views varied so widely that no "coherent direction or mandate" emerged, says Perry Lentz, a committee member and the Charles P. McIlvaine Professor of English. "The bookstore clearly stands for a galaxy of different things to people," Lentz says.
The committee also met with two leading collegiate bookstore managers: Kathleen Grace, manager of the Swarthmore College store and recently the president of the National Association of College Stores; and Donna Pahmeyer, manager of the University of the South (Sewanee) bookstore, which is operated by Barnes & Noble. Those discussions underscored the challenges entailed in preserving the special character of the Kenyon bookstore, with its long hours and role as a gathering place, while strengthening its operations and expanding its selection of books.
These challenges may have contributed to the disappointing response to the extensively advertised national search for a manager. Of the sixteen candidates, the committee conducted phone interviews with five. Two of those five were invited to campus for further interviews. Only one of those candidates seemed reasonably well qualified, and she ultimately withdrew her application.
Barnes & Noble College Booksellers-a company independent of the Barnes & Noble with which most consumers are familiar-offered a proposal that initially attracted high interest in the committee. The firm operates more than 500 college and university bookstores nationwide.
Many members had been skeptical at first, but the entire group was impressed by what the company could offer in terms of trade-book selection, management of textbook sales, and investments in improving the store's design and comfort. Above all, the committee was interested in the prospect that Kenyon would retain control of the character of the store, from its operating hours, to the services it offered, to its look and feel.
The presentation by Pahmeyer, from the Barnes & Noble affiliate at Sewanee, was particularly compelling, according to Kenyon Review editor and English professor David Lynn, a committee member. Sewanee's experience suggested that, if Kenyon were clear in its expectations, Barnes & Noble could "provide both the resources and the flexibility to create a store that reflects the values of this community," says Lynn.
The company backed away from some of its initial promises, however, and the committee unanimously rejected its proposal. According to President S. Georgia Nugent, who chairs the search committee, "In the course of working together this year, search committee members have truly gained an education in the complex world of contemporary bookstores. It is disappointing not to have a resolution at this point. But the committee came to realize that the challenge here is far more complicated than the difficult quest for a first-rate manager. We all want to find a way forward that will bring new strength to the bookstore while revitalizing its role as a cherished community asset."
Members of the committee confirmed that all participants in the search-independent candidates, external consultants, and representatives from outside firms-identified aspects of the current bookstore organization which need to be improved, if the College hopes to attract a first-rate manager. At the same time, these search participants also all saw tremendous potential in the store. The committee will be meeting with bookstore employees to discuss the situation and considering next steps in the bookstore search, Nugent says.