You could say Russell Markman has grown up with the campus bookstore. From student bookseller at CSU Northridge to his current position as Vice President, Campus Relations at Barnes & Noble College, the business is truly in his blood. Russell recently spent five minutes with us to explain why he gave up psychology for a line of work that connects him to people in a different way; why he loves textbooks, but will take a ‘stand’ for Stephen King; and why celebrating the success of others can bring tears to his eyes.
What was your first job?
My first job was working at Taco Bell — it was a great experience and I think everyone should do it. It’s really tough, but it also gives you great insight with customers. My first real job was in 1978 as a student employee at the CSU Northridge Bookstore. I worked there for 14 years (although it didn’t take me that long to graduate!), the last seven were as Store Director.
How do you describe your current role at Barnes & Noble College?
As Vice President, Campus Relations, my role is about developing new business relationships. In essence, my goal is to share the strengths, passion and commitments of our company with schools who could benefit from our expertise in higher education. I always tell people that it’s a relationship business — we’re not selling a commodity.
What are you working on right now?
We always have several proposals in the works and upcoming presentations, but daily, I am constantly looking at campus partnership opportunities where I believe we can really make a difference. We don’t wait for an RFP (request for proposal) to hit the streets; we are proactively looking for those opportunities every day.
What do you think colleges and universities are looking for in a campus partnership?
They are a looking for someone to help them drive student success, both in and out of the classroom — and not just success during students’ time on campus, but what they are going to be doing after graduation. Schools also concerned about providing affordable course materials for their students. The fact is our rental, digital and First Day solutions are not easy programs for self-operated stores to offer effectively. I also think that while many schools know Barnes & Noble College offers an array of learning materials, school supplies, emblematic merchandise, t-shirts and gum, they don’t always know about what I’d call our other front door — our e-commerce solution. And they don’t always know about all the campus engagement we’re involved with or that our relationship is not just with the folks who come through the front door, but it’s also with faculty, athletics, and alumni and other campus stakeholders. We are truly a support system for the entire campus community.
How do you think higher education has changed since you’ve joined Barnes & Noble College?
It’s totally different — by light years! What we’re doing now in learning materials, e-commerce, technology, new store growth, operations, campus engagement, retail disruption….I could go on! In fact there has probably been more change in the industry, and in us, in the last four-five years than the previous 15.
Why do you think Barnes & Noble College is able to create such great campus relationships?
I like that you used the term relationships because the most successful relationships we have are when a campus doesn’t consider us as a vendor, but as a true partner. And that goes back to the point that we’re not selling a commodity, but establishing a partnership — a collaborative relationship. I think college bookstores today are asking themselves: How can we be more relevant? And that’s where our partnership starts to answer those kinds of questions. Part of the power of that is we have a decentralized campus model, coupled with 300 talented home office folks, all of whom are incredibly focused on the success of that store. When a bookstore can access that, it becomes part of a team of 771 [bookstores], you’re no longer out there by yourself.
Where do you think the biggest opportunity lies for Barnes & Noble College for the future?
I get asked that a lot and I think it has to be about helping our customers embrace change. The role of the bookstore, the products we sell and the learning experience itself, are always going to change — and that’s exciting. But the need for a strategic partner on campus, to be able to advise on better and more cost-effective learning options, to help develop technology, and new and better ways of connecting the campus — those opportunities will always be a constant.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
My degree is in psychology and I wanted to be a clinical psychologist, but wasn’t sure I could talk to only eight people a day! This really is the only industry I’ve worked in and I’ve been doing this for 38 years — which is 266 in dog years! So I hope to be doing this until I retire, but if not, I guess teaching or something consultative might be next up on my list.
Favorite part of the store?
The textbook department: It was my first job in the store, shipping and receiving, and then as Textbook Manager, so I still have a great love for textbooks — and it still remains the principal reason why we’re on campus. This is also a very exciting time in the area of course materials with the introduction of an OER Courseware solution. Our bookstores are the partners that will be able to help colleges and universities navigate these new learning technologies.
What’s a characteristic you find most prevalent in Barnes & Noble College people?
Passion and commitment. Barnes & Noble College people love what they do and it shows every single day!
Favorite book or book you’re currently reading?
I’m a major Stephen King fan, and I’m reading his last two books. Of all of them, I think The Stand is my favorite.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned at Barnes & Noble College?
Enjoy what you do, take pride in it, challenge yourself and work hard…and always remember to laugh!
Best day at Barnes & Noble College?
That’s the easiest question you’ve asked! My favorite day is every year during the Service Awards Night at the Barnes & Noble College Annual Meeting. Watching people walk on stage to receive their 5, 10, 15, even 40-year service award — I just tear up at every awards night. It’s the most emotional night of my professional life.