By Victoria Ungvarsky
Nestled in the façade of Farr Hall is the Kenyon College Bookstore, which is the only store in Gambier where you can find textbooks, stuffed animals, sweatshirts, locally made crafts and shot glasses all in the same place. First conceived by College founder Bishop Philander Chase as a way to centralize the culture of Kenyon and raise money for scholarships, the Bookstore remains the longest continually-operating collegiate bookstore in America, according to Kenyon’s website. The key to the Bookstore’s long-running success is its ability to expand and grow to cater to the needs of Kenyon students and residents of Gambier.
“A lot has changed,” Bookstore Manager Jim Huang said. “I think we have to change in our business.” From changes in building to changes in available amenities, the Bookstore serves an important function as a major campus hub.
The Bookstore began as a log cabin established in 1829. Since then, it has had several different locations, including a small white house. In 1966, the Bookstore moved to its current location in Farr Hall. This new location allowed the Bookstore to expand the number of books provided as well as bring a number of other services.
For the vast majority of the 20th century the Bookstore served as a purveyor of only books, ranging from textbooks to rare collectible volumes. As noted in an article from the Spring 1955 issue of The College Store magazine, the Bookstore prided itself on its focus on bookselling, rather than relying on selling magazines and popular fiction to draw students in.
But new management, in the form of Jack Finefrock, brought massive changes to the Bookstore in 1982. Gone were the dark rows of books. In its place, Finefrock brought magazines, coffee and comfortable seating. He even helped establish “Lord Gambier’s Castle,” a wooden structure for children to climb and read on while their parents browsed. The change in management brought a swarm of press coverage to the Hill, including articles on Finefrock in AirFare magazine and the Wall Street Journal. The success of this new model as a community bookstore, rather than just a place to buy textbooks, proved to be essential to the continuing success of the business. Clearly the change of plan worked. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Bookstore’s revenue nearly quadrupled between 1982 to 1992.
Today the Bookstore is a place to study as well as a place to find unusual gifts, art supplies, and food. Huang, who first came to campus four and a half years ago, hopes to perpetuate the Bookstore’s legacy as a hub of Gambier life, as well as a place dedicated to students.“I think that this community really values books and it recognizes the importance that books have a place in our community and everyday lives,” Huang said. “A roomful of books is a meaningful thing. There’s a lot that we can do as an independent store.”
While many other liberal arts schools now rely on larger retailers, such as Barnes and Noble, to sponsor their bookstores, the Kenyon College Bookstore remains dedicated to students’ needs, even if that means selling more than what their name suggests.
“If we want to keep textbook prices low, then we have to make up the costs somewhere else,” Huang said. “Running this place 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week is pretty expensive. So we have to cover those costs. But also I think it is something the community needs.” Even so, Huang is hopeful about the Bookstore’s future. “Yes, we’re going to have to continue to adapt. We are going to want to stay open and flexible and aware of what’s going on.”
The Bookstore has changed since its days as a log cabin. Now it is a thriving part of campus life and will continue to engage students for years to come.