Local bookstore reeling

Rani Gupta

Great Expectations, one of Evanston’s last independent bookstores, has announced it will not sell textbooks in the fall and will share space with the Russian Press Service, a mail-order book seller.

As of this week, owner Jeff Rice said Great Expectations, 911 Foster St., is sharing the store with the Russian Press Service in an attempt to lower overhead.

Rice said the bookstore’s difficulties stem from the “structural transformation of the book business.”

For 53 years, Great Expectations has concentrated on selling backlisted scholarly and academic books. But Rice said the expansion of chain bookstores like Borders Books and Music, 1629 Orrington Ave., and Barnes & Noble, 1701 Sherman Ave., threatens the existence of independent bookstores like Great Expectations.

“When Barnes & Noble opened in downtown Evanston (9 years ago), we lost 25 percent of our business overnight,” Rice said.

He said customers buy books that are easier to find from these chain stores, but said Great Expectations needs these guaranteed sales so the store can carry riskier titles that take longer to sell.

“We needed those money-in-the-bank sales to subsidize what we really wanted to carry,” he said.

Rice said mail orders, which accounted for one-third of the store’s business, have dropped because of the chain bookstores and increased use of Internet booksellers like Amazon.com.

The bookstore has made up for the losses by increasing textbook sales. Textbooks once accounted for 25 percent of the business, but now make up about 75 percent of Great Expectations’ business.

But Rice said he made the decision this summer to cut out this part of his business.

“It’s been increasingly difficult for the two sides of my business to coexist,” Rice said. “I’ve reduced my inventory to make room for textbooks and that’s not something I want to do anymore.”

Rice said despite high textbook prices, they are less profitable to stock.

“Books are very expensive and there’s the built-in assumption that bookstores make a lot of money,” Rice said. “Many times I’ve had to move heaven and earth to get books only to find that I didn’t sell them.”

Rice said he will miss conversing with Northwestern students who came into the store for textbooks.

“The only aspect of the textbook business I enjoyed were the students,” Rice said.

For the past few years, Great Expectations has sold textbooks for about 100 courses each quarter. For the most part, the teachers of these courses have made a special effort to order from Great Expectations to support the business.

Sociology Asst. Prof. Gueorgui Derluguian said he sent ordered textbooks from Great Expectations because he feels students get an experience they don’t get from going to Norris Center Bookstore or Student Book Exchange, 1737 Sherman Ave.

“I want students to be accustomed to a real bookstore, not some place where you go to buy towels with logos of the university,” Derluguian said.

English Assoc. Prof. Paul Breslin said the store also serves as a place where faculty members in disciplines like history, English and humanities can gather and discuss ideas.

“It’s a place where you can go in and if you had an hour or two, you could browse and would run into people you know,” he said.

Breslin said although the bigger bookstores have their benefits, Great Expectations offers a completely different experience.

“I admit there are things about Borders that are very nice, but there’s a whole dimension of things missing there and will likely continue to be missing there,” he said. “It can’t offer what Great Expectations has.”

Rice said the books carried in chain stores are always the same, and shoppers are missing out on the experience of looking in independent stores with unique selections.

“When independent bookstores give way to chains, whether the independent bookstore was better or not, inevitably the independent bookstore was quirkier – in the language of my youth, younger and funkier,” he said. “It makes me feel bad to live in a culture that’s committed to sameness.”