Firm Foundations – Taking Stock

Published: Feb 15, 2016

(Taking stock cropped)

Even in its earliest days, UMBC had a bookstore. At the university’s founding, the bookstore was the “go-to” place for the textbooks and course materials students needed to succeed.

A university bookstore is also a hub of university life – selling everything from batteries to swag – and strategically placed to be where the students are. For many years, UMBC’s bookstore was located in the Academic Services Building and in the University Center before moving to its current two-level home in The Commons.

Robert Somers, director of the UMBC Bookstore, is known on campus as “Bookstore Bob.”
Robert Somers, director of the UMBC Bookstore, is known on campus as “Bookstore Bob.”

The appeal of a career in the university bookstore biz was something that Robert Somers – the longest serving director of the UMBC Bookstore – was undecided upon when he took a job there in 1990. The man now known on campus as “Bookstore Bob” recalls thinking that working in a university atmosphere would either “keep him young” or “kill him.”

There have been sweeping changes in how students obtain the materials they need for courses over UMBC’s history. But talk with Somers and Ralph Anderson, the bookstore’s manager of shipping and receiving (who arrived at UMBC in 1982) and you get a sense not only about those shifts in technology and delivery, but also their commitment to and enthusiasm for the work of learning and building community at the university.

Ralph Anderson, manager of shipping and receiving at the UMBC Bookstore.
Ralph Anderson, manager of shipping and receiving at the UMBC Bookstore.

Anderson recalls that when he joined the UMBC staff in 1982, many more people knew about the nearby Community College of Baltimore County (known back then as Catonsville Community College, or CCC). It was a time, Anderson says, when “the library only had two stories, there were only three dorms, and work on the apartment buildings was just beginning.”

Both men say that one of the hallmarks of UMBC’s bookstore through the years has been a commitment to customer service. As a veteran of larger book retailers such Follett Books and Barnes & Noble, Somers brought his knowledge of best practices to campus. Both men agree that talking to their customers, including student workers, to find out what customers need is essential. As Somers puts it, it’s important to ask, “Who are we selling to?” Part of answering that question is making a regular effort to “go straight to the horse’s mouth” and “find out what students need” by asking them directly.

Another part of customer service is getting UMBC students and other members of the university community the best possible prices, especially since much of what the bookstore sells is required reading. Doing so in the age of online discount retailers such as Staples and Amazon presents significant challenges, and in some areas (such as office supplies, including furniture and file cabinets), large retailers’ ability to offer lower prices at the click of a mouse led UMBC’s bookstore to phase out the sale of such items.

Reflecting on the ability of online retailers to provide these items quickly and cheaply, Somers says, “You can try selling these other items…but who’s going to buy them? In today’s world, students can get what they need in 24 hours and at a better price.”

The digital age does offer the UMBC bookstore new opportunities as well. Somers and Anderson are both excited about “The Course MaterialsInitiative,” a new program launching this spring, which will provide materials for 12 courses exclusively via UMBC’s Blackboard system. Though Somers readily acknowledges that students will likely “always be able to find course materials cheaper elsewhere,” he says his negotiations with the publisher of the materials means “the vast majority of UMBC students are going to benefit from the initiative’s very low pricing.”

One area in which the UMBC Bookstore has undoubtedly boomed is the increasing array of UMBC-branded items on offer, keeping pace with the university’s ever-growing alumni base. Somers reports that, “Whether it’s a UMBC mug, a notebook, or a tie, those sales are way up,” and estimates that sales of clothing emblazoned with the UMBC logo “have probably tripled” since he arrived in 1990.

Visiting alumni may also be pleased to see that the bookstore’s Yum (Your University of Maryland) Shoppe is still going strong. Somers and Anderson say that have worked hard over the years to ensure that the shop offers exactly what students want at the lowest prices possible. Anderson notes that not only is the Yum Shoppe competitively priced, but that it offers a variety of items not found anywhere else in the greater Baltimore area – from British candy bars to sodas normally sold only in the Southern United States. Even if just one student requests stocking a particular item, Anderson says, the Yum Shoppe will carry it. It’s part of a personal touch and a sense of community at UMBC that both men identify closely with the leadership of President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III. “At UMBC if you need help, all you have to do is ask for it,” says Somers.

— Theresa Donnelly ’13


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