Learning curve

<p>Campus bookshops will shortly be facing their annual peak; some will take &pound;100,000 in a couple of days. Imagine a Harry Potter launch, the Saturday before Christmas, and a Jacqueline Wilson signing combined&mdash;all within a space little bigger than a broom cupboard.</p>
<p>Yet for some 50 weeks of the year, the dedicated campus bookshop sits, fully staffed and fully stocked, with a trickle of customers. For decades, academic booksellers fretted about the threat from online learning, course packs etc, but thanks to student inertia the convenience of the campus bookshop prevailed. Now online booksellers provide a rapid and low-cost service for both new and used texts, even for those freshers yet to be told that they don&rsquo;t really need to buy the books anyway. The decline of supplementary reading has also taken its toll, making the business over-reliant on a handful of set texts.</p>
<p>Chain booksellers have sometimes justified a presence on campus in the same way as the clearing banks; students may be costly to serve, but they will go on to be the most profitable customers of the future. There&rsquo;s some truth in this, but students begrudge the money spent on textbooks, which doesn&rsquo;t feel like the way to start a worthwhile lifetime relationship. The sector has meandered for years; Blackwell and Waterstone&rsquo;s have had more pressing priorities, and Student Bookshops came and went, leaving everyone with the legacy of unrealistic rents from their reckless bidding. Only John Smith&rsquo;s, with the entrepreneurial drive of the Gray brothers complementing the wisdom of Willie Anderson and Terry Field, has prospered.</p>
<p>There are perhaps three ways forward:</p>
<ol>
<li>The US campus bookshop model: be big and bold, sell a wide range of learning materials, university clothing and souvenirs, and set out to service not just the campus but the wider local community. Sadly, Britain might be too densely book-shopped for this to work.</li>
<li>The John Smith campus model: supplement the core texts with an eclectic range of items to suit student needs. Lease constraints are the main problem here, although university authorities will need to offer booksellers a wider remit if they are to continue to enjoy the prestige of a campus &ldquo;bookshop&rdquo;.</li>
<li>The &ldquo;Blackwell Connect&rdquo; model: a temporary, now you see it/now you don&rsquo;t operation. Although currently used for smaller institutions, market dynamics might dictate that this is the only economic way to service all but the largest sites.</li>
</ol>
<p>A new direction is needed to save the campus bookshop from the same fate of irrelevance as the college television room.</p>