April 3, 2005

Uncommon: Dave Shields

As one of the most active places on campus during the first week of the quarter, the University of Chicago Bookstore is frequented by hundreds of students each day. As textbooks are being purchased, credit card bills are soaring, and hair is being pulled, the Maroon thought it appropriate to highlight the manager of the Bookstore, Dave Shields. We stopped to ask Shields a few questions.

Chicago Maroon: What steps in your career led you to become the general manager of the University of Chicago Bookstore?

Dave Shields: I managed the store at the Berklee College of Music for a few years until Barnes & Noble took over that account. Since then I've worked at the Barnes & Noble stores at Northeastern University in Boston, MIT, and finally here.

CM: What attracted you to working on a college campus, more specifically that of the University of Chicago?

DS: For me, there's no better environment than a college campus. There's diversity, cultural events, literate people, strong opinions, and a mix of the young and not so young, that you would never find anywhere else.

Another part of the appeal of working on campus is that we have a challenge to help further the mission of the University we serve, and at the same time meet the needs of the University and community at large. There is a lot of responsibility there, so we never feel that what we're doing doesn't have a larger purpose. That can be rare in the retail world.

As for why I'm here at the University of Chicago, I moved back a couple of years ago to be closer to family, without knowing too much about this campus. Since then I've found it to be a dynamic place with a great community feeling. It has a more urbane atmosphere than you'll find on most campuses, and with the wide diversity of curricula, there's no shortage of interesting activities that can appeal to just about anyone.

CM: One would assume that the first week of the quarter is the most hectic at the bookstore, as students pour in to buy their textbooks for class. How do you prepare for this week each quarter? What kind of problems do you run into?

DS: Logistically, the first weeks of the quarter (rush, as we call it) can make or break you in our business, so being as well prepared as possible is mandatory. That means having the right number of staffers hired and scheduled to meet the ebbs and flows, the right number of books on the shelves, the supplies and general merchandise placed in a way that the students don't have a hard time finding them. So as much as we can, we break things down to numbers. We use productivity reports to determine how many cashiers are needed at a particular time of day. We use sales histories by course and title to determine how many copies we should have. And we use sales reporting information to help us determine what merchandise needs to be on hand at any given time. As anyone who has ever tried to find a book that we ran out of on the second day of classes can tell you, it is most definitely not an exact science, but we continually strive to improve our systems and communication, so that problems become fewer and far between.

CM: A question that is most likely of interest to all college students is about textbook prices. Why is it that textbook prices are so much higher than those of most other books?

DS: Ah, the $64,000 question! (Actually, I'm not that far off, am I?) Unfortunately, the cost of a new textbook is something that is, for the most part, uncontrollable at the store level. There is a fairly detailed explanation of where the textbook dollar typically goes on our website:

We have a couple very strong options to help alleviate the pain. We try to bring in as many used books as possible. Used books represent a 25 percent savings off the price of new books. Our preferred method of obtaining used books is to buy them back from the student. Over the last year and a half, through working to get booklists earlier, and more aggressive promotions, we've been able to increase our textbook buyback by over 75 percent. That being said, we still need to work harder to make sure that more students and professors get the message that the used book buyback and purchase is the most significant value available to the students today.

We've also started making the textbook component available separately from the publishers' packages that you so often see on the shelf. When we can do that, our chances of being able to have used copies on shelf, and just as importantly, buying back the book from the student, increase dramatically. Both of these factors help to put less expensive books on the shelf and more money back in the students' pockets.