Bookstore, Café, and Imagination

In 1997, Jonathan Cole, the Provost of Columbia University, walked around the Morningside neighborhood in New York City, disturbed by the shabby conditions of a few older bookstores. After failing to lure the legendary bookseller Jack Cella from the Seminary Co-op Bookstore of Chicago, Columbia offered Chris Doeblin and his partner Cliff Simms a university-owned building and computer services for a quality bookstore next to the campus.
Last week, I had a conversation with Chris in Book Culture, his wonderful bookstore on West 112th Street in Manhattan. It’s a place where you only intend to stop by, but come out two hours later with five, six, or seven books.

“Why can’t my city of 30,000 university students support a decent bookstore?” I asked Chris. He smiled, “Although university students don’t read much, the university with imagination must be happy to have us around.”

There is no reason that Newark’s universities could not repeat this rather simple success story.

Last year, in his annual university address, Dr. Steven Diner listed opening a downtown bookstore as one of three Rutgers’ major contributions to Newark’s revitalization. However, the waiting for a Barnes and Noble bookstore may last forever.

Meanwhile, Robert Muller, the owner of New Jersey Books, has survived and thrived in his book business during the city’s thick and thin times. In New Brunswick, Rutgers had failed in an eminent domain battle against Mr. Muller for the location of his branch bookstore there. In Newark, the university administration has always given him the cold shoulder, failing a mutually beneficial relationship.

A few years ago, Professor Dorothy Olshfski felt sick about not having a decent coffee shop around the campus. Instead of waiting for Starbucks, she bought a building on New Street to open Woodrow’s, a wonderful café.

“I want to use what I have been teaching to bring something to the community,” this public administration professor determined.

Rutgers magazine planned to interview her for a feature article. At the last minute, the provost pulled the rug from under her feet to block the article in order not to send a “wrong message” to faculty members — apparently, community service is somehow perceived to interfere with research.

Professor Olshfski’s fans were puzzled: why wouldn’t the university want an entrepreneurial initiative that benefits the school and the community from one of its most academically productive faculty members?

For the second year, Mayor Booker went to the International Conference of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas and failed to bring back any big-box businesses, even with millions of dollars in tax incentives. Well, begging for big names is a painfully conventional approach, which might never work for Newark.

Wouldn’t it be much more promising if our mayor would just pick up his phone to call Mr. Muller, whose family has been here for generations, to have a cup of good coffee in Woodrow’s with Professor Olshfski and now Chancellor Diner?

Everything is here in Newark — expertise, capital, and entrepreneurship, if only our leaders could have a little more imagination.

Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

One thought on “Bookstore, Café, and Imagination”

  1. Here’s an insight for your bookstore campaign.
    College bookstores have long had a terrible boom-bust cycle. Just a few times a year, the students need textbooks. The store spends a huge amount to stock those, sells them for a few weeks, and then either has a profit or a monster loss it can’t make up on shirts and school supplies. To avoid taking the loss themselves, schools have increasingly turned to chains that can do bulk purchasing and standardized operations, like Follett. Follett has far more in common with Exxon than with Woodrows and other independent bookstores: they won’t do the distinctive local things that make a strong community hangout really work.
    I suggest that you push for a bookstore that skips textbooks entirely. Amazon probably makes that unnecessary. What you need is a store for university people, with books and food and conversation.
    A university that wants to be taken seriously has to have a place like that, even if it has to subsidize it with free space and other supports.
    A city that wants to live up to its historic importance and beauty has to have one, too. (Or actually, five or ten or twenty, but one comes first.)


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