Coop president Jeremiah P. Murphy '73 said earlier this month that he wants the Harvard Cooperative Society to be "the best bookstore in the world." If he tried to achieve this goal without outside help, we might just say, "Keep dreaming!" But with the help of Barnes and Noble Bookstores Inc., he just might be able to make good on that vision.
Although there are a few things to watch out for, the deal bodes well for Harvard students, faculty and alumni.
First and most obviously, the move will help the Coop pull itself out of its nearly $200,000 loss last year. With that deficit--the first in recent memory--it could have survived a few more years alone, but not without some cutbacks and certainly not with a rebate.
Barnes and Noble's approaching the Coop was particularly fortunate. With the super-chain's management of more than 300 college bookstores, it has a proven track record. And unlike Boston University's bookstore, which bears the name of Barnes and Noble, the Harvard Coop's will keep its historic name and maintain its appeal to alumni.
Some have wondered why the Coop can't run itself. The reason is economies of scale. In a market divided between superstores and mom-and-pop shops, a mid-sized department store like the Coop can't make enough departments profitable to survive. Working with a larger firm therefore makes sense.
Second, the move will make the Coop's merchandise more relevant to many members of the Harvard community. Although the board has not yet decided which departments will go, prints, insignia, trade books, textbooks and stationery--some of the Coop's most popular items--will definitely stay, and the store will likely stock housewares during peak periods.
Departments likely to be axed--with good reason--are the less popular women's and men's clothing, which hearken back to an era when Harvard men had to wear coats and ties to meals and Radcliffe women wore dresses, not jeans.
As more popular departments stay and more antiquated ones fade away, the Coop will likely be more profitable, making possible in a couple of years the five percent rebate of which Murphy has wistfully spoken, and the lack of which students repeatedly lament.
And prices will likely stay the same, since Murphy said Barnes and Noble's pricing system is similar to the Coop's. Although that may not sound appealing to people who believe the Coop is overpriced, a Crimson investigation last spring found that the Coop's prices are generally comparable to other Harvard Square stores.
Third, on a more philosophical level, Murphy's move to Barnes and Noble could make the Coop less of a catch-all and more of a place for students to sit, drink tea or coffee in the proposed first-floor cafe, and talk with friends and faculty.
Unlike many other college communities, Harvard Square doesn't have a large cafe-bookstore. Barnes and Noble's takeover could even make the Coop a competitor against the new Loker Commons, opening in January.
Fourth, with Barnes and Noble will come a greater selection of trade books and more used textbooks--boons for students with low cash flow. Unlike the Coop, which orders only for its half-dozen stores, Barnes and Noble orders for hundreds of stores at a time. This mass production could alleviate the problem of finding books for oversubscribed Core classes.
This cornucopia of selection, however, does carry with it a potential problem for other Harvard Square booksellers. In the past few years, several small Square booksellers have gone out of business because they couldn't compete with larger superstores.
"When you have a concentration of decision-making and buying power in a few hands, rather than many hands, it leads to an overall lack of diversity in what gets published," said Carole Horne, the head bookbuyer for Harvard Bookstore and the president of the New England Booksellers Association.
Other Harvard Square bookstores will either need to specialize or offer customer service and familiarity that the Coop can't give in order to stay in business.
If the Coop's renovations--scheduled to be finished by June 1996--go as planned, the Coop could regain its status of 25 years ago, when it was known as the best bookstore in Boston.