Verbum Ultimum: Tough Road Ahead

The relationship between the town and the College is far from settled.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/11/19 2:20am

 For the next year, the College’s libraries will be filled with exhibits extolling Dartmouth’s scholarly history and ostensibly bright future. Much of this revelry will focus on the community of alumni who once called Hanover home. But celebrations of the College’s academic pedigree and achievements may be inconvenienced by an awkward reality. For the first time in decades, the College on the Hill will be in a town without any bookstore.

The news was dismaying to many in the community, “but we could read the tea leaves,” said Hanover town manager Julia Griffin while speaking to members of the editorial board. After 26 years in operation, Wheelock Books, the bookstore that catered to Dartmouth students seeking to buy new textbooks, shuttered its doors at the beginning of the year. The Dartmouth Bookstore, which in recent years has been owned and operated by bookstore franchise Barnes and Noble, announced that it would not renew its lease in September of last year.

The closings of Hanover’s bookstores are an undeniable embarrassment to a College that not only prides itself on its academic pedigree, but is currently celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding in Hanover. That said, the demise of the Hanover bookstore should not be attributed to any anti-intellectualism or consumer patterns unique to the Dartmouth community, nor is it the duty of the Dartmouth administration to manage the business environment of the town.

As with many college towns, Hanover and the surrounding area are disproportionately affected by and dependent on the economic decisions and activities of the university situated near them. Seemingly minor decisions made by the College have significant impacts on the economy and social fabric of the Upper Valley.

Dartmouth is the region’s largest direct employer, its community contributing significantly to the welfare of the area. This December, several businesses reported revenue declines of around five percent for that month compared to the same period in 2017, according to Griffin.

Given this impact, it is no surprise that the shifting spending patterns of students and faculty have proved disruptive to Hanover businesses. Most pertinent to the demise of both the Dartmouth Bookstore and Wheelock Books was likely the community’s transition from brick and mortar shopping to online retail. While any of the retail stores in Hanover are susceptible to such a transition, bookstores have proven one of the most vulnerable victims of digitization.

Yet this decline is hardly a reality limited to Hanover. In fact, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, set out to revolutionize the entire retail industry by first transforming how Americans shopped for books, specifically by streamlining the process online. Today, Amazon dominates not just how Dartmouth students buy their books, but how Americans broadly buy nearly every product imaginable.

As one of the largest sectors of the American economy, the decline should be a serious concern for policy-makers, economists and business people at both the local and national level. That said, the closing of Wheelock Books did not bring about a shortage of textbooks on campus. The Dartmouth Bookstore’s shuttering was met more with cries of embarrassment than lamentations at the loss of the store itself. To the Dartmouth community, evidently, these stores were auxiliary features of the town, not integral to the practical nor emotional needs of most students.

As time has progressed, the College has also provided services on campus which were once fulfilled by firms in Hanover. As a private institution, it is understandable for Dartmouth to attempt to control as much student spending as possible. There are, however, reasonable ways for local businesses to compete with the dining and retail options offered by the College. Succeeding at this, however, will require concerted, creative and organic efforts from local business owners and entrepreneurs.

For Hanover, the question remains as to how residents can support a local business environment and enable a culture that can sustain stores deemed socially important. However, neither the Dartmouth community nor senior administrators should actively buoy any such venture without significant push from the community. With no such protest on the horizon, the challenge is one for the Hanover community to solve.

The desire for a robust academic and social space to read and use books is one clearly present in Hanover. Hanover’s Howe Library is a publicly funded, privately managed institution that follows such a model of community engagement. The Norwich Bookstore, the last remaining local bookstore in the region, has also survived thus far by hosting events featuring authors and intellectuals, as well as providing an authentic experience in-bookstore that intangible markets like Amazon cannot yet provide.

Businesses and bookstores in other cities and towns have also been more resilient to the digitization and consolidation of the economy by finding new avenues to court patrons. For many bookstores around the country, that has meant promoting a sense of community and intellectual engagement with the store.

As Dartmouth reflects on its 250 years situated in the Upper Valley, it would benefit the institution to grapple with its relationship with the town and its denizens. Though the College is a powerful and storied institution, senior administrators are wont to remind students, faculty and Hanover residents alike that it is not a government, nor would even that independence allow it to control the economic outcomes in the Upper Valley. That said, the closings of The Dartmouth Bookstore and Wheelock Books should spur action from both the College and the Dartmouth community.

For the town, the question of how to sustain a bookstore viable in a community as peculiar as Hanover should be of significant importance. Senior administrators, meanwhile, might consider redoubling efforts at promoting around-the-clock learning environment at the College, given that such spaces are truly lacking outside Dartmouth’s sphere. For students and faculty, the editorial board challenges denizens of campus to be deliberate in their spending, for such actions help to fund the world and environment the community will find itself in the future.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.