Government

UNI looks to add bookstore amid industry shakeout

Multimillion deal would acquire assets even as sales shift online

A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek, The Gazette)
A driver drives through the gateway of the University of Northern Iowa on Thursday, June 23, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek, The Gazette)

The University of Northern Iowa is the only one of Iowa’s three regent schools that doesn’t own a bookstore — but it’s hoping to change that next year if it succeeds in getting rules waived to prevent university competition with business.

UNI is asking the Board of Regents for permission to buy the privately owned University Book and Supply — which has served the campus for 80 years — for $2.4 million. That total doesn’t include the value of textbooks and merchandise, estimated to be worth $575,000.

If approved, money for the purchase would come from temporary investment funds, involving income from interest earnings on non-general education fund and non-appropriated balances.

The proposed deal would incorporate all of the University Book and Supply assets, including the bookseller’s Cedar Falls real estate and the Hawkeye Bookstore on the Hawkeye Community College campus in Waterloo — creating a potential conflict regents would need to waive.

The goal of the pending purchase — according to documents made public Monday in advance of a regents meeting Wednesday — is to “provide convenient access to textbooks and course materials for students as well as stronger connections with academic departments.”

Though UNI does not now own a bookstore, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University have been in the business for years.

UNI officials did not disclose how much they expect to spend annually running University Book and Supply. UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen said the institution would operate it under “a different model than the previous ownership.”

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UNI is seeking to enter the bookstore business at a time of seismic shift, with virtual text books and online marketplaces morphing the industry.

Many campus bookstores dramatically have altered operations and inventory. Some dropped physical books entirely and partnered with online retailers to become official electronic book vendors. Others closed.

At the UI, the university-run Hawk Shop & Bookstore quit charging sales tax earlier this year under a provision in the Iowa Tax Code. UI officials said the change came in response to a Student Government resolution supporting a tax exemption on “course materials” bought from UI bookstores — but the Hawk Shop took it a step farther by exempting all items, including apparel.

At the nearby privately owned Iowa Book & Supply, the text book section has grown increasingly meager. Meanwhile, Hawkeye clothes, games, backpacks, face paint, ribbons, clocks and other black-and-gold souvenirs consume the rest of the shop.

“I have been assistant textbook manager since the ‘90s and I have seen the sales slowly tapering down,” said Iowa Book & Supply’s Virgil “Scooter” Hare. “But I think the tipping point for the college bookstore — with text books — hasn’t occurred yet.”

Those recent and looming changes are part of the reason Doug Johnson said he and his colleagues want to sell University Book and Supply in Cedar Falls. The store’s vice president, one of six stockholders, is nearing retirement. He conceded that online competition hurts sales.

“It has cut into our business,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen that over the past five years. Being the only bookstore here, we are going to take the brunt of any time students start buying online.”

For the deal to go through as proposed, regents would need to waive a provision barring universities from competing with private enterprises. Iowa Code lets regents exempt sales of books and other educational equipment “to students, faculty and staff of the institutions.”

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But because the Hawkeye Bookstore doesn’t serve UNI, the exemption does not apply to it. The board could give an exception if it finds the rule poses undue hardship.

“Interruption of the bookstore operations could pose an undue hardship to Hawkeye Community College and the students it serves,” the regent documents state, “and cause unnecessary and unreasonable costs to be incurred.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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