On a frigid February morning, between campus closings, event cancellations and endless snow clearing, Steve Turco and Karen Fallon are at the still busy Barnes & Noble at Boston University bookstore talking about what matters — and why they care. “I think the point is,” Turco says during the discussion, “if you had the opportunity to make a difference with a good business decision, why wouldn’t you?” Fallon agrees, “At this point, it’s really something our customers expect of us. If we weren’t doing it, I think they’d be demanding it of us,” she says.
The conversation isn’t about operating in one of the worst snowstorms in recent New England history, or even about a proposed charity initiative, it’s about commerce, and the decision the bookstore has made to stock the kinds of merchandise that not only appeal to the campus and the community, but that also makes a difference — quite a big difference.
Four years ago, Fallon, the store’s General Merchandise Manager, was introduced to Krochet Kids, a company producing hats, gloves and scarves by teaching women to knit, and thereby enabling them to earn a living wage in locations as far away as Uganda and Peru. “What impressed me was not only the quality of the merchandise, but the fact that each item carried the maker’s name on the tag and a little about her personal history,” she explains. “I knew it was a story that would resonate with BU students.”
That first vendor grew to a multiple suppliers, which now comprise the store’s Goods That Do Good campaign; a collection of clothing and gifts produced by companies with a business philosophy that transcends simply making a profit. “It wasn’t hard to find suppliers who operate their businesses in that way,” Fallon admits. “If you shop where our student population shops, you’ll see a lot of campaigns focused around cause marketing. I think the bigger challenge is finding vendors who can not only offer quality and style, but who are also good at communicating; offering transparency about their mission, who they’re helping and why that’s important,” she explains.
The bookstore program now includes vendors such as Artists for Humanity, a locally-based program providing a range of apparel for the store featuring BU’s Terrier logo, and Chavez for Charity, which designs bracelets in different colors denoting a specific charity. These brands have both attracted interest from students as well as garnered impressive sales.
With such a compelling and personal story of how manufacturing their products has impacted the lives of their workforce, Krochet Kids has a particular resonance with the bookstore’s customers, many of whom have responded personally by connecting online with the very women who are making these products. An impactful display featuring photographs of the workers, along with a store video, further explains their stories.
Closer to home, Turco says including Artists for Humanity, the largest employer of under-resourced youth in the city of Boston, in their program was a no-brainer for the store. “It’s our opportunity to pay it forward for our own community,” he points out, acknowledging that it also reflects Barnes & Noble College’s philosophy where store managers can act independently on local initiatives that particularly resonate with their campus and community.
And Boston is a special kind of community. The city of Boston provides a 60,000 square-foot facility where Artists for Humanity can teach and train high school students — who would otherwise not have jobs — to screen print t-shirts, mugs, journals and bags, and learn from graphic artists, production and marketing experts. “It’s a progressive city, and with the high concentration of college-age students in the area, there clearly is a desire to help the community,” Turco explains. “People here care.” So much so that the initiatives started at BU have now spread to other area colleges such as Yale, Simmons, MIT, and Harvard.
Ask Turco if a social obligation ever runs counter to the profitability and the economics of running a large store in a major downtown metro area and he’ll tell you this. “I think it is our responsibility,” he says. “Our students expect us to identify vendors who care about the things they do — be that on a global level with a product like Krochet Kids or helping Artists for Humanity in the Boston area.” Fallon agrees adding, “This generation is really paving the way for influencing what retailers carry and what their product assortments look like, and in some ways even demanding it.”
Bringing together communities is at the heart of the program — whether it’s connecting students of Boston University to a less fortunate South Boston neighborhood — or a wintery Beacon Street in Boston to a distant village in Uganda. But all of that suits Store Manager Turco just fine. “After all, when it’s all said and done, aren’t you going to be judged by how you conduct business and by the company you keep?”