End of a Chapter

Rani Gupta

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Great Expectations, one of Evanston’s last independent bookstores, will close its doors at the end of the month after 52 years in business.

Through September, the store will sell titles at 75 percent off. Owner Jeff Rice is busy liquidating the store’s inventory, selling books back to publishers and other bookstores.

The Russian Press Service, a mail-order bookseller, already is occupying the space at 911 Foster St.

Rice said recent developments in the book industry drove Great Expectations out of business.

“The economics of the industry changed,” he said. “They couldn’t allow us to be the kind of bookstore we wanted to be.”

Rice said Internet booksellers such as Amazon.com took away from the bookstore’s mail-order business, for which they were known worldwide in the philosophy field. Chain stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books and Music stole easy sales that Great Expectations depended on to keep its selection of backlisted academic 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 publishers, especially university presses, also were once more lenient with extending credit to independent bookstores.

“We were dependent on publishers indulging (our) attempts to keep an extensive backlist,” he said. “But the indulgence of publishers has gradually eroded.”

John Eklund, a sales representative for Harvard University Press, Yale University Press and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, said university presses have recently changed their policies toward independent bookstores.

“It used to be that small presses could extend credit indefinitely,” Eklund said. “But university presses have been under the same kind of financial demand as bigger publishers are. We have had to be more strict about people paying bills.”

To make up for lost business, Great Expectations increased textbook sales to about 100 courses. Last year textbooks, which once made up only 25 percent of business, totaled 75 percent.

But textbooks proved to be costly 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.”

And to make room for textbooks, Rice had to decrease the store’s regular inventory.

“We were forced by circumstances to become less and less a scholarly oriented store and more and more a textbook store,” he said. “Rather than watch the store dwindle further, I decided to just call an end to it.”

Many Northwestern students and faculty members regard the closing of Great Expectations as a blow to the NU community.

The bookstore was founded in 1949 by Bob Geary, who often bailed customers out of jail when they were arrested for unpaid parking tickets. Later Truman Metzel Jr. brought the store to prominence as owner from 1961 to 1995.

“Great Expectations is one of those places that’s becoming so rare with all the over-competition from Borders and Barnes & Noble,” said Mark Thatcher, a Weinberg sophomore. “I could just walk in there and browse and find any book that I wanted. It has an atmosphere that no other place has.”

“I’m deeply saddened both professionally and personally,” said Carl Smith, a professor of English, history and American studies. “Great Expectations has, through my career at Northwestern, been one of the major intellectual resources in the area and a wonderful place to visit and hang out.”

English Assoc. Prof. Paul Breslin said faculty members in disciplines such as English and philosophy would use the store as a meeting place.

“I understand that things like that might appeal more to faculty and graduate students than undergraduates,” Breslin said. “But if there’s a place for faculty in different disciplines to interact, it benefits people at all levels of the university, even though the benefits may be more obvious to some people.”

The bookstore tried to stock books that made people question their own knowledge, Rice said.

“It was a center of argument and intellectual conflict,” he said. “Nobody in this bookstore ever shied away from a good argument.”

For Rice the loss is deeply personal. As an undergraduate at NU, he visited the store often, and he worked at Great Expectations before taking over as owner in 1995.

“It’s very sad,” Rice said. “I’ve never been associated with Northwestern when I was not associated with Great Expectations. Except when I was out of town, I’ve never gone a week without going in the store.”

But the closing of Great Expectations is not entirely unexpected.

Throughout the North Shore and the country, independent bookstores are struggling against the forces of the Internet and chain stores.

Rice said that when he tells friends in the book business about the store’s closing, their reaction is “amazement that we lasted as long as we did.”

“What’s happening at the store is microcosmic of what’s happening in the industry at large,” Rice said.

Rice will teach a history course at NU this quarter and is writing a book about the transformation of the book industry.

Jack Cella, who owns the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5757 S. University Ave., said he had to adapt to the industry turn by taking orders online.

“It’s a very difficult environment for independent bookstores in general, especially ones that focus on the academic market,” Cella said. “Scholars are the most computer-literate group of people you can find. Amazon.com and online purchasing in general have made tremendous inroads to that group.”

Some publishers and bookstore owners worry that the decline of independent bookstores could make it hard for riskier books to find sellers.

Eklund said stores like Great Expectations would stock books the owner deemed important, even though those books might be harder to sell. But chain stores will not take similar risks.

While overall sales are not declining, the types of books published could change.

“It’s not so much actual sales, but a cultural change in what’s going to get published down the line,” Eklund said.

“I worry about homogenizing. It’s going to be harder to publish more challenging books that don’t have a huge guaranteed sales and aren’t on sexy, popular topics.”

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