Opinion: Students deserve a real bookstore

Our university “bookstore” has more protein bars than books.

One day after roaming through aisles of bougie pimple creams and custom USC sneakers, acclaimed USC English professor William Handley remembers asking the young woman at the checkout incredulously, “Where are the books?” She peered around cautiously, then whispered, “I think we have more of a sour snack selection than we do real books.”

Why doesn’t our university have an authentic bookstore?

I don’t mean the type of bookstore that sells marked up geology textbooks and $40 “USC grandma” hats. I’m talking about the niche communities of curiosity and knowledge that are rapidly disappearing from our world. Over one thousand bookstores shut down in the United States between 2000 and 2007. From 2005 to 2015 bookstore sales plummeted by four billion dollars. Long-standing neighborhood bookshops morph into corporate chains. Cozy cafes evaporate into thin air. Barnes & Nobles plans to close 200 more of their branches in the next five years. The smell of stale, worn pages and the feeling of thick, rough paper between fingertips are ever-fleeting.

If the university has enough funds to bolster projects promoting superfluity and capitalism of this nature, how come they cannot chip into a space that would promote the true pursuit of education and community?

iPad in one hand, iPhone seven in the other, college students mourn the loss of physical books, as the expanse of information, convenience, and “connection” is pushed on us by a convenience economy. We will have Amazon to thank if the famed Last Bookstore in downtown lives up to its name.

When I was five, my father first brought me to our neighborhood bookshop. I remember losing myself in the glossy pages of Junie B. Jones and Mr. Belinksy’s Bagels. There, in the musty corners and crevices of the page, lay infinite people, stories, and worlds. I realized I could connect with anyone in that ubiquitous, little universe. Skin color, wrinkles, clothing choice — nothing mattered — except the words on the page, which were as diverse as the folks who frequented the book stacks.

Isn’t the university founded on the hopes that all students have that realization? If there is a place where a bookstore inherently belongs it is on a college campus. A bookstore is filled to the brim with infinite stories of unexplored peoples, cultures, and worlds. A bookstore is a place where you can walk in someone else’s flip flops or rain boots for a moment through the magic of stories.

“I want a bookstore put on campus because the bookstore USC currently has doesn’t fit my needs as a young woman of color, a first-generation student, and someone who comes from a working-class family… There’s a novel, Ida B., by Karen E. Quinones Miller about growing up in a project in Harlem. Those are the kinds of books our current ‘bookstore’ doesn’t offer,” said Nys Trejo, a senior studying English.

Providing a space that promotes obscure books like The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, or American Youth by Phil LaMarche would let students discuss heritage, societies, and global issues in a leisurely environment. This could bridge the gaping divides of race and socioeconomic status that assert themselves on this campus.

Professor Handley shared that a few years ago, he went to our bookstore to buy his colleague Viet Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer — a fresh perspective on the Vietnam war. The book wasn’t available. This novel is now a Pulitzer Prize winner. “It’s a disgrace. It’s a sign of the corporatization of the university and all of the anti-intellectual, hypocritical values that come along with it,” Handley said. Perhaps the university has forgotten their mission statement:

The central role of The University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” 

Colleges studded throughout the country — Stanford University, Brown University, The University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Williams College, The University of Wisconsin etc.— all have spaces dedicated solely to the sale of leisure books. Students have created successful book clubs spurred by campus bookstores as well.

While we have cafes, clubs, and libraries, there is no space dedicated solely to bringing people together through books. It is an issue of priorities: The libraries on our campus are used predominantly for studying schoolwork and do not encourage exploring beyond what we are assigned. We have two new Starbucks within two blocks of one another. When Starbucks starts hosting open mics and salons, then the university can say they told me so.

Our school just opened a 15-acre retail and living space that cost 650 million dollars. It was the largest and most costly real estate development in the history of Los Angeles.  Clearly, our lack of an adequate bookstore is not a financial issue. If the university has enough funds to bolster projects promoting superfluity and capitalism of this nature, how come they cannot chip into a space that would promote the rigorous pursuit of education and community?

The books in our bookstore are hidden under wildly expensive school supplies, an abundant assortment of brand-name backpacks, and 75 dollar song girl skirts. Zach McLane, A narrative studies major, lamented that “it has been disappointing how USC seems to care little for supporting the discovery of literary work, yet features multiple independent and international films in the film school each week. A bookstore on campus would help foster a literary community that does not currently exist.”

While not all students are book lovers, the idea of what a bookstore represents would do wonders for our community as a whole. My older sister, Rachel Katz, who attends the University of Chicago says, “Sometimes people wander into the bookstore at U of C not because they are trying to avoid schoolwork, but because the bookstore is a haven separate from ‘school.’ It encourages people to learn by exploration as they avoid their real ‘work.’” She told me about the ways in which the bookstore not only brings students together but also bridges the socioeconomic divide between students and people living in the Southside Chicago community: “A bookstore is universal. It draws from a wider crowd than just students — families with young kids, as well as locals come in all the time. It doesn’t feel like a place that is solely at the whim of the university community.”

We need to take a hard look at our school’s values and take a sharp turn towards change. Professor Handley adds, “If USC wants to survive the disgraceful scandals they have been a part of recently, one small way would be to have a real bookstore.”

With more books than protein bars, please.

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Becca is the co-editor of NEON. She is a senior double majoring in English and Political Science.