Under the stairs in Barnes & Noble, Cecile Cohen keeps an understated office. The room is small, with a sloped ceiling and barely enough space for a desk, a couch and piles of books. There is no door, but Cohen likes it that way — anyone can come and go at any time. There are no windows, but Cohen says she doesn’t need windows. For Cohen, there is nothing gloomy about her life’s work: selling language books to Yale students.
From that office, Cohen runs the World Language Center (WLC), which, although it is located on the ground floor of the Barnes & Noble Yale Bookstore, is entirely independent from the book-selling giant. It’s part of a small company called Adler’s Foreign Language Books, and as Cohen says, she is “dependent on no one but the students.” She values her autonomy highly, and when she speaks about the challenges and triumphs of book-selling, her French-accented voice turns intense and passionate. After 30 years of devotion to this small space inside the Yale bookstore, Cohen has made the WLC her home.
“This job is why even in my mid-’60s I’m still happy, and not walking my dog on the Champs-Elysees,” she said.
Since she started working in New Haven in 1979, Cohen has watched the local bookstore scene evolve. Today, Barnes & Noble competes for coursebook sales with Labyrinth Books — an independent store with branches in New Haven, Manhattan and Princeton — and Labyrinth competes with the WLC. Among Yale students and professors, the stores’ reputations could not be more different: Barnes & Noble cares about money; Labyrinth cares about knowledge; the WLC is just a cluster of shelves. But the truth is more complicated.
“I think there’s something of a mistake in saying that Labyrinth is the store to go to for local color and that Barnes & Noble is the store for big business,” Tim Ellison ’09, who buys from both stores regularly, said.
In the New Haven books market — where sellers lure in large orders from professors by offering questionably legal discounts, where they hound professors on the phone to stock their syllabus first and where loyalties run generations deep — little is as it seems.
A Liberal Consensus
In August 2006, Yale faculty received an e-mail from Provost Andrew Hamilton warning them not to accept bribes from a certain New Haven bookstore. Although the bookstore was never mentioned by name, most professors understood it to be Labyrinth, which had been soliciting orders from faculty by offering them personal discounts in return.
In the e-mail, Hamilton acknowledged that this exchange “might at first glance seem to both the store and the faculty member a harmless practice,” but he went on to distinguish it from more typical and acceptable business practices in which the buyer himself receives a discount. When professors order books for a course, they do not spend money; the bookstore simply stocks the books so that students may buy them. Professors, then, wield extreme power to direct the students’ business to a particular retailer. When Labyrinth offered faculty discounts that weren’t in any way passed on to students, and which were contingent on the professor’s book order, Hamilton saw a conflict of interest.
“In this situation, the vendor is not doing business directly with Yale, but is offering a financial benefit to the faculty member willing to use his or her authority as an instructor to steer students’ business to the vendor,” he wrote in the e-mail.
But John Rogers, the director of undergraduate studies in the English Department, saw Labyrinth’s former policy as nothing remarkable. The financial incentives were simply a way to attract patrons in a competitive market. “That happens at all the bookstores,” Rogers said. “It even happens at Tyco. It’s not bribery. All the local businesses bend over backwards to accommodate professors.”
Hamilton’s letter underscored the controversy that surrounds the New Haven bookstore market. As some professors took issue with his insinuation, the letter seemed only to solidify Labyrinth’s reputation as an embattled maverick.
According to English professor Amy Hungerford, Barnes & Noble, by virtue of its financial prowess, can conduct business in an ethically compromised way — and on a much larger scale than Labyrinth.
“Barnes & Noble can give discounts because they’ve strong-armed publishers into cutting prices,” said Hungerford, whose academic interests include the history of book publishing. “They’ve gotten on a high horse and accused Labyrinth of bribing faculty — which, in terms of an ethical lapse, I think, is pretty minor.”
And even as the bookstores reworked their policies (both Barnes & Noble and Labyrinth now give professors discounts whether or not they place coursebook orders), the professors’ buying preferences remained largely unchanged. In the English Department, Hungerford said, there is a “liberal consensus” to support the independent bookstore, Labyrinth, even though there are no departmental rules regarding where to order books.
Ancient Tribal Ties
The tradition of buying from the independent bookstore, located at 290 York, is an old one. Before Labyrinth came to New Haven in March 2005, Book Haven, another independent business, occupied that hallowed space between Yorkside and Toad’s Place. Most professors who currently support Labyrinth were once patrons of Book Haven.
Why such a tight bond between professors and independent bookstores? As literature professor Richard Maxwell put it, independent booksellers tend “to have their finger on the pulse of things.” They — rather than publishers — decide which books to display and how to display them, he said. They intentionally find out where their clientele’s interests lie and how these interests change, and they stock and organize books accordingly — or so say the loyal professors. The professors who prefer Labyrinth call it a “real academic bookstore,” and they say Barnes & Noble has entirely different priorities.
But for all the professors who patronize Labyrinth, the question becomes: Why not the World Language Center? It’s certainly independent, and its parent company, Adler’s, is an operation smaller than Labyrinth, which recently opened a large store at Princeton University. Although it may be independent from corporate publishing interests, Labyrinth is not exactly in danger of extinction, and in the words of classics professor John Fisher, the Princeton branch has a “strangle hold” on the book market there. The answer to this question, ultimately, may be that some professors don’t know of the WLC’s existence — or they misunderstand its nature.
The WLC’s location can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it tends to share business with Barnes & Noble patrons. But on the other, it suffers from misguided prejudice against the book-selling chain and its perceived affiliates.
“I suspect many professors don’t realize that the WLC is an independent company and therefore choose to support Labyrinth,” Literature Department DUS Barry McCrea wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a pity, because Cecile who runs the WLC is extremely professional and talented, and deserves our business.”
This misunderstanding is prevalent among professors and students alike. It’s hard to believe that an independent company could exist within Barnes & Noble without any sort of payment changing hands. But since it started in the Yale Co-op in 1979 — under the name “Europa” — the WLC has had its independence protected by the Yale administration. When Barnes & Noble bought the Co-op in 1997, Yale insisted that the WLC remain in that location and retain its autonomy.
The misperceptions surrounding the WLC wouldn’t be as damaging if it only sold language books. In the foreign-language market, it has no competitors in Barnes & Noble or Labyrinth. But the WLC does stock English-language books when professors order them, and in that regard it competes directly with Labyrinth.
So why not the WLC? Hungerford said she hadn’t even heard of it. Usually, the professors who order English language books from the WLC teach courses in foreign languages as well. This group includes literature professors, classics professors and others who have had some reason to seek out the WLC’s primary service.
“Since I don’t teach foreign languages, I haven’t had occasion to go in there and see it,” Hungerford said.
But Hungerford added that even though she now knows of the WLC’s existence, it won’t replace Labyrinth as her bookstore of choice. This may be in part due to the “ancient tribal ties,” as Rogers put it, that attach professors to Labyrinth, but mostly it’s because she has no good reason to switch.
“I’ve now learned the Labyrinth process. I wouldn’t change just to support one independent bookstore over another,” Hungerford said. “If I heard that the WLC offered a book at a lower price, then I might look into it. I’d only start changing my behavior if I heard that students stood to benefit from that.”
That Intellectual Feel
Ellison is a Labyrinth regular. After six semesters of buying books at the store, the staff there know him. But every time he walks in, he has to check his bag at the door, accepting a playing card as a bag-check token. It’s a relatively harmless policy — something every Labyrinth shopper must observe — but after a while, it can get on a person’s nerves.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Ellison said. “They know me, so I feel like they should trust me.”
In Barnes & Noble, by contrast, Ellison appreciates being able to wear his bag around the store. He finds in general that the customer service at that store is just friendlier, and that the WLC’s service is the friendliest of all.
“I find Labyrinth to be cold,” Ellison said. “And it’s on purpose of course, since it has that intellectual feel.”
He went on to say that Labyrinth isn’t a place where one can relax and read, and that much like its competitor on Broadway, it’s “just about selling books.” The store may have a more comprehensive selection — especially of “small-press and under-published titles,” as Jeffrey Zuckerman ’10 put it — but for some, customer service matters more.
Despite the “liberal consensus,” some professors think Labyrinth actually makes book ordering more difficult. During his first semester teaching at Yale, Fisher ordered books for his classics courses through Labyrinth, but he was soon disappointed by what he saw as a lack of customer attention.
“I found them utterly unhelpful,” Fisher said. “You know, they’re more into their Buddy Holly glasses than actually working. I said I wanted desk copies, and they went, ‘Uh, what’s that?’ ”
He now orders all of his books through the WLC, and he especially appreciates working with Cecile, whom he calls “very helpful and very accommodating.”
Just as the loyalty to Labyrinth has “ancient” roots among some faculty, the resentment for that store has a history as well. Book Haven’s former co-owner was once a graduate student in classics, and because of that connection, he worked hard to entice classics professors to place orders through his store. But his efforts seem to have had the opposite effect. Several professors said they found him “offensive,” though they would not say why, and that his presence at that store was part of the reason they abandoned Book Haven. When Labyrinth took over, many of them still stayed away.
Some of the spurned professors may have been tempted to switch to Barnes & Noble, but that company employs aggressive tactics of its own. Jade Roth, vice president of books for Barnes & Noble College Stores, said that it would not be uncommon for a bookseller to phone a professor who’d ordered books elsewhere to ask which texts would be appearing on the syllabus.
“We get that information in whatever way possible,” Roth said. “That way we can have the books in our store so the students can get them.”
Some professors find Barnes & Noble’s policy irritating.
“When I order my books from Labyrinth, at some point I get e-mails from Barnes & Noble pestering me,” Rogers said. “They want to know exactly what I’ve ordered, so they can stock the same books. That seems a little like skullduggery.”
A Complementary Relationship
When competing on price, Barnes & Noble has the advantage. The company has the money and power to buy books in bulk from publishers, and such practices are reflected in the large discounts that the store offers consumers.
Students appreciate the lower cost: In an informal survey of 70 students conducted by the News, 48 cited price as one of their top considerations in choosing a bookstore. And Kathleen Borschow ’10 said she appreciates the ability to bursar her purchases, or charge them to her student ID, a service only available at Barnes & Noble and the WLC. Labyrinth, to stay competitive, focuses on stocking books that Barnes & Noble might not carry — even if they are a bit more expensive.
“We specialize in scholarly books,” Cliff Simms, the owner of Labyrinth Books, said. “We don’t do the Times Best-sellers. I don’t think we can compete on the 30- or 40-percent off. It’s too small of a space to have everything, so we have to make decisions.”
For some, Labyrinth’s selection of books and its academically minded staff make all the difference. Zuckerman called the employees there “knowledgeable and helpful and friendly,” remembering an occasion when a staff member gave him honest advice about where to buy a book, recommending Amazon.com over his own store. According to Simms, Labyrinth staffers make customer service a priority by dealing individually with students and professors, and sending them e-mail updates about book requests. Rogers appreciates this customer attention.
“Labyrinth is a small bookstore, and so the people there are more likely to know you,” he said. “They’re hungry for business and more likely to get the order right. Your e-mail communications are less likely to get lost in the ether.”
The relationship between the stores, Simms said, can be complementary as well as competitive. Certainly the competition drives the prices down, but also the different bookstores supplement each other’s collections of books, offering students choice.
“More bookstores would be a boon in these blocks for students, rather than J. Crew and Urban Outfitters and places you can find all over,” Simms said.
Special Sociological Phenomena
When shopping for coursebooks, there’s one tool that some students don’t enter a bookstore without: their laptops. Cecile said it saddens her to see students comparing her book prices with Amazon.com and other Web sites — she’s worked hard to be able to offer the best price — but competition with the Internet is inescapable.
If there’s one great leveler of bookstores large and small, it’s the Internet. Even the big booksellers suffer, and according to Hungerford, online book sales are enforcing what she sees as poetic justice on large companies such as Barnes & Noble, who squash competition by attempting to drive smaller stores out of business.
“Thankfully, the Internet has really put a dent in any monopoly power in the world of books,” Hungerford said.
As anyone who has shopped online knows, the Internet can offer books for cheap. With hundreds of book-selling Web sites, online markets promise better selection, price and availability than most physical bookstores. For some students and professors, the Internet is the only logical choice.
Classics and English professor Timothy Robinson GRD ’94 tells his students each semester to use the Web site comparebookprices.ca. From its home page, users automatically search hundreds of online booksellers for a particular book, and the site ranks the sellers by price. It’s a powerful tool for finding new, used, out-of-print and in-print books. Robinson says he feels bad directing students’ business away from local stores, but he would feel even worse if his students suffered financial hardship.
“My main consideration is the students,” he said. “I want them to do well and not feel any anxiety or burden.”
But the local bookstores have found ways of coping with the Internet’s might. Barnes & Noble recently started selling a small number of its coursebooks as “digital textbooks,” which, according to Barnes & Noble Textbook Manager Chris Manemeit, are generally about 40-percent cheaper than the physical books in online markets. These digital “books” are really just computer data stored in pdf files, which students access by purchasing a barcode and activation code.
In the WLC, Cohen does extensive research to ensure that her prices beat the Internet’s. For imported books, she says she can always beat Amazon.com’s prices. For other books, she believes she can match the online bookseller. There are times when her books are a few dollars more expensive , but for the most part her “big-ticket” items always match or beat those on the Internet.
“For me, it’s a matter of survival,” Cohen said. “Not matching Amazon is a death sentence.”
But low price has its cost, and many students lament the Internet’s drawbacks: shipping delays, the occasional inability to return unwanted books and incongruity between an item’s description and reality.
And then, there are some things that bookstores will always do better than the Internet. The experience of browsing a bookstore is unique: According to Simms, the point of physical bookstores is that they’re about “what you don’t know” rather than what you go in expecting to buy. The ambience of a bookstore is — at least so far — inimitable online.
Hungerford said that when she asked her class last semester where they usually buy books, she was surprised at how many students still bought from physical bookstores. According to literature professor Henry Sussman, there’s something about being in a store surrounded by books — maybe with comfortable chairs and a cup of coffee — that appeals to people in a way an online store never can.
“Bookstores are a very special sociological phenomenon known as a ‘setting,’ ” Sussman said. “They’re a place where people can go and have a fairly unique experience. And to the extent that that experience is so important to so many people — even when it’s a question of securing classroom materials — they won’t be wiped out.”