Explaining Things: A Conversation With the Andover Bookstore

The Andover Bookstore has been a staple of the Phillips Academy community since Principal Mark Newman resigned in 1809 to found it. Since then, it has moved locations, seen thousands of Phillips students pass through its doors, and changed ownership. It is the second oldest bookstore in America and now run by Robert Hugo, who bought it in 1992. Phillipian Commentary recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Hugo and his son, John Hugo, to discuss some of the issues that the bookstore is facing. One of the biggest complaints students have with the bookstore is the price of books; how would you respond to that? For the first time this year, we put up signs comparing our books to the other main retailer, Amazon. However, the reality is that books are expensive. They are always a big hit to buy, and that is probably part of the reason people get upset. For this term though, I took my most expensive books and compared them; as we saw, both happened to be cheaper as well. In the scheme of things, we are very competitive with other retailers. Also, remember that Amazon sells some books at a loss, such as Harry Potter and expensive collegiate books. For example, the book used by AP Biology at PA is on that list, and we cannot compete. However, we are very competitive with others and are trying to expand into used books. Plenty of students seem interested, and we would love to provide the option. You mentioned branching into used books. Would you care to elaborate? We are planning to expand and allow people to sell back old books. This would be for students in Math 350-360, for example, in the Fall and Winter Terms, who now go into Calculus and need new books. We want to give students an option other than the end of year-book sell-back program. Lastly, most of our books are priced the same as what the publisher advises on the back of the book, so we think we are being perfectly reasonable. What are some of the reasons you cannot compete with Amazon? Part of the problem is that we also do not sell a third of our books while some classes also get cancelled. If this happens, we have to pay UPS to send books to us and then send them back. Considering gas prices today, it can get very expensive. What also happens is that, by contract with PA, the school has set some of the prices of books. Some students have wanted to make delivering books to campus a reality – do you ever see that happening? Daniel Adler ’05 tried to do that during his Presidency. He came down and spoke to us about his plans to do so, and we were very enthusiastic. Provided we got around a hundred orders, we were prepared to hire a truck to bring it all up to campus and deliver it to students dorms. However, Fall Term, the idea had only 32 takers. Winter Term, it declined to 16 and Spring Term, only 5 students. We were all shocked at the reception the idea got, although it seems like many simply enjoy the experience of coming to the bookstore. What role do you think the atmosphere of the bookstore plays in the scheme of things? Coming down to the bookstore is almost like the college experience of buying books. We give students all the options to do what they want. In a lot of other schools, like Governor Dummer Academy for example, students pay a set amount of money and the selection is very restricted. We like to give students all the options, and students respond. We have a few students who come down here multiple times every week just to read something other than school books, with the fireplace and reading chairs, and we host many special events every year to which people in the town and PA are all invited. We have gotten comments back from many graduates who comment on how much the fireplace and bookstore really meant to them. A common complaint of students has always been that the booklist is never released in time for students to have many options. Is the bookstore involved in this in any way? There is not a school in New England that releases the booklist besides PA. If you want to buy your books online at another school, you would have to go down to the school bookstore and copy the ISBN number yourself. For the Academy, the problem is also that it is an enormous amount of work processing all the book requirements. Each term the school needs hundreds of different titles, and some teachers simply fail to get their list in on time or have incorrect ISBN numbers, which delays the overall release of the list. However, there is no secret booklist deal with the school, and we encourage students to choose where they want to buy their books. The lines at the beginning of the year to buy books always seem extremely long, although they have gotten shorter recently. What has the bookstore done to expedite student purchasing and what does it plan to do in the future? There are especially long lines on the freshman day every year. In that case though, part of the reason is that the school wants them all to go down at once and hopefully bond together. It gives many new students a chance to meet one another, although since many have never written a check or used a credit card before, it also sometimes takes a while. We also face the issue that many parents submit credit card numbers to the bookstore earlier in the year if the children don’t have a credit card themselves. However, for us to go in the back and find the number takes time, and this year a record number, 35%, were declined because the card had expired or something else. These issues take a while to resolve while the child calls home and tries to resolve the issue. The fastest way to improve the lines would be the One Key Card system currently talked about. Giving us a uniform way to bill books would make it very quick and simple. As anyone with a credit card knows, once you come to the counter, it takes under two minutes to finish. We’ve increased the number of cashiers and done our best and we’ve been very successful. This term, we had no lines over 30 minutes except on the first day after class, when a ton of students came to buy books. The return policy of the bookstore causes problems for some students. Are you doing anything to change it? We made the return policy simpler and now give students two weeks – three or four days after the last day to add or drop a class – to change books. We have asked many other colleges about their policies and ours are in line with theirs, if not even simpler. Some of the language books we get, for example, we cannot return since we ordered them overseas, though we still accept returns on them. After two weeks though, many of the books need to be returned or we face tax difficulties; however, we do think our policy is very fair to students. Is the Andover Bookstore a primary seller of school merchandise? We’ve been a major seller, and we now have competition with the Harrison Rink and PSPA. However, all merchandise we sell has to be approved by the school and PA charges a royalty on all goods, so the higher price is in part because of that. In addition though, it is just a matter of what students want. Twenty years ago, we used to sell Andover ties, but nobody buys those anymore. What percent of the bookstore’s sales come from PA? PA is responsible for around 25% of our sales, while the town is responsible for the other 75%. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with us? We really enjoy working with the PA community and always want to talk to you. We are open to suggestions from students, such as what Daniel Adler ’05 tried to do when he came down and saw the process. We want to be involved and have owned the store for 16 years now. For many things, like shortening lines, the ball is now in the school’s court. We welcome any suggestions from students, and would love to hear from students. The Phillipian thanks Robert and John Hugo for their time.