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End of a Bookstore

At the University of Virginia, the move to oust President Teresa Sullivan was prompted by her lack of love for “emerging technology.” The board members plotting to fire her talked about inevitable “transformations.” The academic community fought, and won, to re-instate Sullivan. But the climate of fear has prompted similar rhetoric across the nation, and currently it’s being used to gut the humanities at the University of California and elsewhere: Economic challenges and emerging technologies demand “transformation.” Supposedly, board members and administrators understand that transformation better than academics.

Here at UC Irvine, we have own “transformation” under way.  The administration is killing the bookstore. Long posters in the window store are festooned with images of what seem to be anteaters in Transformer costumes. A campus-wide email trumpeted a “Bookstore Transformation”: “We are also developing a new brand to reflect these and other transformations occurring across the store!” (italics in original).

The administration’s proxy, who signed the email as “Stacey Murren, Interim Director,” has prompted many of the long-term staff at the bookstore to “retire.” This is the primary “transformation” thus far, along with a decrease in actual books for sale (one source told me that over 100,000 books will be sent back to publishers). The last few author readings were held in a humanities building, not in the store, in protest. A management theorist, it seems, Murren required that the staff take personality tests. She asked that they consult their personality color analysis before interacting with other staff, to ease interaction amongst people of different personality colors. But it’s the push away from a commitment to books that has pushed longtime books department manager and “Interim Co-Director” Matt Astrella and his peers out. At a recent reading, which packed over a hundred people into a room in HIB, faculty, staff and alumni gave standing ovations, gifts, and tearful speeches for the departing bookstore staff. The feeling in the air was clear: We were mourning a crucial part of UC Irvine’s intellectual life.

The University’s own communications officer profiled Matt Astrella in 2009. She wrote that he helped the “UCI Bookstore become a center of campus literary life and home for new authors.” The Zot Zine last month linked to a piece in The College Store citing Astrella’s Author Series as a primary example of how bookstores can sell more books and “boost sales while strengthening ties between the campus and community.”

But Astrella has been forced into retirement and the Author Series is no more. It’s not clear what the new brand will be. Perhaps we will have a sexy Electronic Text Store, or an Enhanced Sweatshirt Stand, or a hot Pretty Please Buy Here Instead of Amazon Spot. In any case, the new brand will no longer focus on those antiquated, nostalgic repositories of human memory and learning, those collections of mere words, those symbols of liberal arts and research and education: Books.

On the one hand, administrators like to tell Michelle Latiolais, the co-director of UCI’s MFA in Creative Writing, that the storied writing program is a “jewel in the crown.” But on the other hand, those same administrators continue to support decisions like the one to kill the bookstore. Latiolais treasures the reading series as a beloved “victory lap” for authors like Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Alice Seybold and Izzy Prcic, who travel “home” to UC Irvine. Murren’s first take on the series, according to Astrella and others at the meetings, was that no one cared. Once it was made clear to her that plenty of people both attended and cared deeply, she suggested that the bookstore charge admission. This suggests that the person now running the bookstore rarely, if ever, attends author readings. More importantly, this suggests that administrators who don’t value or respect books believe they are best suited to find new ways to monetize them.

Michelle Latiolais has already met with the University Chancellor to protest the new direction being taken at the bookstore. Latiolais also wanted to protest that she had heard the administration was paying a high-priced consultant for help re-branding. Murren then evidently demanded an end to faculty involvement in her transformative vision. The bookstore—to be clear—has been in the black for all but one of the the past eighteen years (Astrella maintains that the only red came, last year, because of a late accounting assessment). Matt Astrella’s effective ouster and the “transformation” are not about profit, but about how much profit and in what way.

This is short-sighted. The reading series can’t be evaluated solely in terms of book sales. It serves as an inspirational and community-defining event for everyone who cares about both UCI and writing.

The Ivies and other great universities understand that involving the wider community in the University’s intellectual and communal life is crucial to developing the kind of life-long relationships that prompt alumni to give. The fact that no one in development at UCI is protesting the death of the bookstore means that we don’t have a very good development department. Writing and humanities alumni who return to find that not only is there no reading series, but also no bookstore will be much less likely to pin rosy memories of finding their calling to UCI. If books start to seem like something that was a fluke, not part of the university’s core mission, humanities alumni won’t identify with the institution. This is not gauzy humanities idealism. It may be easier to quantify the number of sweatshirts sold than it is to measure loyalty. But just ask the Yale Endowment: Loyalty pays.

The UCOF’s curriculum recommendations, Sullivan’s ouster at Uva, the bookstore transformation: these share a similar underlying assumption cloaked in unsound market logic. The idea is that a commitment to intellectual life and academic values is a luxury that public universities, during hard times, simply can’t afford.

Executive administrators make “market” arguments to justify their own high levels of compensation while they raise tuition, cut tenure track lines, and push students into online classes. The forces behind them would like us to believe that only gauzy idealists stand in the way of such inevitable “transformations.” But this is false and short-sighted. To put it in market terms: Academic excellence, community and intellectual life—the intangibles built by and for faculty and students—are the University of California’s greatest asset.

If the university won’t stand up for intellectual life, that intellectual life will perish. Some things, like the value of a reading series or of a strong research community, may be hard to monetize. But every time the UCs crap on their faculty (that’s the technical term), raise tuition against massive protests, force researchers to turn to the private sector for funds, sacrifice classroom learning in the name of technology or kill a bookstore, we borrow against our greatest asset. While Yale may develop its e-learning capabilities, it won’t sacrifice intellectual life on campus. It won’t give up its commitment to giving undergrads face-time with ladder faculty. It won’t sacrifice academic excellence, or its commitment to dusty old books. Each such move that the UCs make in the name of profit margins makes it easier for private and foreign universities to poach our top talent—on the academic market. The highly-paid top administrators at the helm of this sinking ship will not be the ones poached first. It will be our best professors and students. Their absence will cost us more—in lost reputation, in lost intellectual community, and yes, in lost grants and tuition money—than the dollar value of their salary and tuition.

Of course, e-books and Amazon are changing the landscape of book buying and selling. But any “transformations” at the bookstore should start by beefing up the reading series, by fostering UCI’s brand as a place with an intellectual life. The “bookstore transformation” email promises “dynamic pricing” and begs: “compare us to Amazon!” This is the first step in a vision for the future? In the face of online competition, the bookstore’s best hope is to hold onto its brand  as the public face of UCI’s famous writing program—it should be fighting to keep the people who have made the bookstore a haven for authors, to build its image as a clean, well-lighted place for victory laps. Instead, we have lost the author series and the bookstore’s longtime staff—people committed to the literary life and beloved by the wider UCI humanities community.

Everyone who cares about books as a universal symbol for intellectual endeavor, independence, research and learning should recognize that we are all in this together. Graduate students, writers, professors and bookstore staff take a portion of their pay in intangible value. We work hard because the work is rewarding and because we value the opportunity to live the life of the mind. That intangible value is hard to monetize, but easy to destroy.

Perhaps the programs in writing and the humanities departments should simply boycott the store-formerly-known-as-book until the administration brings back Matt Astrella and his staff. If our input isn’t needed, then it won’t matter if we send all our students to Amazon.com until we once again have a Bookstore. Let it be a first step: Stop the bleeding into online learning. Fight the “Needs Attention” cuts. Resist the UCOF’s curriculum recommendations. I say all of this out of a great love for the great, public, University of California system. But if we don’t fight to preserve our community’s values—for academic excellence and intellectual life and books, for goodness sake—then who will? As the chants went at the May Day protest: Whose university? Our university.


Michelle Chihara mixes your cocktails.

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