There are now no bookstores around the University of Oregon (UO) campus. Until recently, there were two. The two did not, however, go out of business — at least not in a straightforward way.
One of the stores is the University bookstore. At least since I moved to Eugene, 13 years ago, the uppermost of its three floors contained general books — fiction, nonfiction, children’s books — the full set you’d expect from a good small bookstore. A year or two ago — I can’t remember — books were relegated to the back third of the middle floor. Now, they have disappeared completely. One might worry that one can’t have a bookstore without books, by definition. There are still textbooks, however, and in any case it’s not technically the UO Bookstore, but rather the “Duckstore.” (Not that they have ducks.) My inability to remember the exact history of books at the campus bookstore is the main motivation for this post — documenting so that I (or anyone else) can look back at this later for a snapshot of the campus neighborhood in late 2019.
It’s not too surprising that the Duckstore has abandoned books. I never saw many people shopping for books there. I bought perhaps 2 or 3 books per year, as birthday or Christmas presents. Still, it’s unfortunate. I was reminded of this in November when I dropped by the campus bookstore at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. It was packed with books:
Almost all were math, science, or engineering books, but they weren’t specifically textbooks. I bought a neat book of math puzzles; there were several to choose from. I’m skeptical of the profitability of the store — it’s wonderful that they have the complete set of Landau & Lifshitz’s Course of Theoretical Physics, but I wonder how many buyers it gets?
I’m sure the bookstore is subsidized — there can’t be that much demand for esoteric number theory texts and microbiology books. Presumably someone thinks it’s valuable for the school to have a well-stocked bookstore as a resource available whenever students, faculty, or random visitors need it.
At The Duckstore, in contrast, you can buy plush toys, lots of sports-themed merchandise, and innumerable items of clothing:
So much clothing:
I didn’t really care that UO no longer has a bookstore with books because of the very good independent bookstore on the next block. But a few months ago, it suddenly closed. It’s Smith Family Books, whose campus location is now shuttered. Paradoxically, its downtown store is expanding. Apparently, the rent on it’s campus site suddenly and significantly increased, forcing it out after 45 years at the spot. A nice Daily Emerald article is here. The owner, Evon Smith, noted in the article that “In the campus area alone there were something like six bookstores at one time.”
Though the current number is zero, there are bookstores outside the campus neighborhood. Downtown is barely over a mile away, and it’s easy to get to by bus or bike. (Eugene is small.) As mentioned, Smith Family books is there, and larger than before. Even closer is the smaller but excellent J. Michaels Books; the people who run it have great taste in what to stock. A photo:
The disappearance of books for sale around campuses isn’t unique to Eugene. A nice essay about the general phenomenon by Doug Ward at the University of Kansas is here. A quote:
“I’ve written before about universities’ shift toward consumerism, about the way they have diminished the importance of learning by promoting themselves as carefree places with endless conveniences, cheering sports fans, and smiling students who seem to have little to do but stroll together across leafy campuses. The loss of campus bookstores fits into that trend, further hiding the intellectual life — the soul of higher education — behind the gloss of consumer appeal.” — Doug Ward.
Thankfully we still have libraries on campus, full of books. UO’s are excellent, which I was reminded of a few weeks ago when wandering through the stacks of the Knight Library (UO’s main library) with my kids on a Saturday afternoon. It was Thanksgiving weekend and the day of a football game; we were three of perhaps 30 people in the building. I’m sure the football game attendance was at least 1,000 times larger than this.
It’s common nowadays to question what the purpose of the library is, especially when so much information is easily found online. I claim that the physical space and its atmosphere enhance and encourage serious study. They’re inspirational. Furthermore, though the 30,000 people at the stadium will buy more Duck apparel than the 30 people at the library, the latter might have a bigger impact on humanity. I could be wrong of course, but regardless, the university’s reason for existing is, or should be, to promote intense intellectual endeavor, regardless of whether it’s pursued by the few or the many.
The kids and I weren’t doing anything profound, however. For a while we we were searching for the oldest books we could find in the aisles we were in, which tuned out to be from the mid-1800s. (We were excited by a fascinating 18th century Encyclopedia Britannica, but I learned later it was a 20th century reproduction.) We wondered: who besides us has looked at the 1917 Who’s Who? (On the shelf at the left in the photo below.) Did anyone care about it even in 1917?
More interesting was the June 17, 1929 issue of the Chicago Daily News, with an article on the University of Chicago’s “Brilliant Labors in the Field of Science.” (I was a grad student at Chicago, so I was especially fond of the article.) In addition to people I had heard of, like Albert Michelson, there were others I had not:
We also, from an advertisement, learned about the wonders of Whale-bone-ite toilet seats.
We live in an age of amazing intellectual resources, with much of the collected wisdom of human civilization accessible with an ease that is almost magical. Having accessible, physical books is a valuable part of this heritage. Let’s hope it persists.
A rhinoceros beetle (unfinished) — I took this photo soon after starting the painting.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, December 26, 2019