America’s music capital, Nashville, is also no stranger to the world of literature. Most famously, novelist’s Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books was opened in 2011, championing the role of the independent bookstore in the local community. But Nashville is also home to the Barnes & Noble at Vanderbilt University bookstore, and the two have far more in common than you’d think. In the competitive world of book selling, bricks-and-mortar stores have carved out a tactical advantage, based on knowledge, service and a deep connection to their customers that point-and-click sites can neither rival nor replicate.
“We’re very aware that everything we do here has to be reflective of one of the highest academic institutions in the nation and the larger Nashville community,” explains Director of the Barnes & Noble at Vanderbilt University Bookstore, Beth Cain. “Reading and literature are so very relevant to both, so our role here can’t just be about setting books on a table,” she says. Cheryl Dalton, the store’s Trade Book Manager, points out that consistently connecting to the community through upwards of 250 literary-based annual events is just one way the store is advancing that mission, both off and on campus. “We partner with the Vanderbilt Visiting Writers Series, a program through the University’s English Department, and we host a variety of authors throughout the academic year at the store,” she says. “We also partner with the Chancellors Office lecture series and the Divinity School. We strive in all ways to be that strategic partner with the University.”
One way the bookstore connects to the local community is through the promotion of local authors. Assistant Trade Manager Ralph Schuller can reel off a stream of writers slated to appear throughout this school year, among them, Vanderbilt Professor of French History, Holly Tucker, with her latest book City of Light, City of Poison, alum Erica Lewis’s freshman title, Game of Shadows and Christina Geist, who along with husband, NBC journalist Willy Geist, both Vanderbilt alums, will be visiting with her children’s book Buddy’s Bedtime Battery, to coincide with the University’s reunion weekend. As he points out, “We’re all local, we all live here, so we all understand and contribute to this community.”
That emphasis on a creative approach to the bookstore and its relationship to the community also extends to the way the store is merchandised. “I know everybody might say it, but each of our markets is really different, so we want to make sure we’re building unique experiences in our stores,” says Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Trade Books, Jack Barney. “Also, as the industry has changed, we want to make sure that that our displays go beyond just promoting the latest James Patterson novel, for example,” he says.
Recent years have seen some stores rearranging linear footage on the floor in a move towards more curative displays, with themed tables that have school relevance and include small press and university press titles. As an example, Barney describes the newly remodeled UNC Chapel Hill campus bookstore, UNC Student Stores, where shoppers will find tables and wall units of local publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and UNC University Press collections — along with shelves of regional books leading to the best sellers section. “So, before you even come into the trade space, we’re already curating that impact to our local community,” he explains.
“It’s a lively and diverse campus, and we’re incredibly honored to be part of it,” says Michele Gretch-Carter, Manager of the UNC Student Stores. Echoes of the campus literary heritage are evidenced throughout the building and even in the store’s spacious new café, Stone & Leaf, whose name is taken from the writings of alumnus Thomas Wolfe. “It’s an acknowledgment that there’s a huge literary legacy on this campus, and we wanted to embody that,” she says. “There’s been a Bull’s Head Bookshop on campus for nearly a hundred years, and we wanted to re-energize life into that space and make sure it remained a vibrant part of the campus community.”
Occupying the third floor of the UNC Student Stores with more than double the title space, the Bull’s Head Bookshop is also the center for student programs such as DeStress Fest events, and features a dedicated event space as well as a casual space for students and faculty to relax and socialize. The store is also a key participant in the Bull’s Head Advisory Board, and other outreach initiatives, to demonstrate its leadership and inclusion in community affairs.
At both UNC Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt, there is also ample demonstration of another advantage missing in online retail ─ extraordinary customer service. “It doesn’t matter where we work in the store — at the registers or in general merchandise — we know books and we can help give great advice,” Gretch-Carter says. Dalton agrees “We have a book selling team of people who are passionate about books and offer a great level of customer service,” she says. “It’s important to us that we maintain our own personal reading — and that’s reflected in the presentation of the department, and being able to make recommendations and help our customers find the right book.”
“As a bookseller, our best advantage in many of our markets is that we’re the university store — the Bull’s Head Bookshop or The Harvard Coop — the irony, maybe, is that for all intents and purposes, we’re operating as an independent store,” says Barney. That’s very much in evidence at UNC, where Gretch-Carter has put the finishing touches to the Bull’s Head Living Room, a dedicated quiet reading space that also offers conversation tables, a fireplace and large-screen TV for presentations or news on emerging titles. “We want to reflect that true literary feel, but if we’re going to have Thomas Wolfe on one display and a coloring book on another — isn’t it also okay if people are reading and engaging — and passionate about what they want to read?” she asks. Reflective of the mood, the room is surrounded by books from faculty and local authors as well as the classics, and Gretch-Carter breaks into a book lover’s smile. “I mean, what else would you have in your living room, but the classics?”