The Future College Bookstore: Leave The Books, Take The Panini

The campus bookstore is no longer the place you go to buy textbooks once a semester. Its new incarnation is part of the changing landscape of what higher education offers students.

Imagine that the campus store you remember from college–the place where you went to buy text books and maybe a school sweatshirt–could be so much more. Now, instead of just a bookstore, it’s a town square/marketplace where students, faculty, and maybe even locals grab lunch, meet friends for coffee or a glass of wine in the evening, plug in for an afternoon of studying, buy an iPad, buy a keyboard, buy a T-shirt, get their laptop fixed, and perhaps buy a book.


Call them next generation campus stores and call the traditional campus bookstore the next venue slated for a certain remake (following in the footsteps of recreation centers and dining halls) as colleges and universities vie to offer students an enhanced college experience and an alternative campus hub while simultaneously dealing with the reality that printed course materials are shrinking as a percentage of store sales.

The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, moved its PennCard center (campus IDs plus passport photos, notary and banking services) into its Penn Bookstore last year as a part of significant renovation whose goal was to turn the store into more of student hub. At the University of California-San Diego bookstore, course materials are displayed in “flexible space,” meaning the textbooks can be rolled to the back of the house or off-site after peak selling season and the space then used for events. And in the coffee shop of that bookstore, there’s a small performance space that works well for poetry readings or single musicians.

At Arizona State University-Tempe, at the newly opened Sun Devil Campus Marketplace at College Avenue Commons. The brainchild of ASU and Follett Higher Education Group with Gensler (the global architecture-design firm where we work), it was designed from the ground-up to be both an ASU “cultural experience” and a warm and inviting social condenser that welcomes the Tempe community and feels something like a grand reading room, conference facility, coffeehouse, and lounge rolled into one environment.

The two-level Marketplace has a built-in “fringe” mentality. It sits on the edge of campus–not in the core like most college stores–with one foot on campus and the other in the city of Tempe. It anchors the ground and second floors of a new, five-story, “hybrid” academic building that’s also home to campus tours, which puts a lot of new and prospective students at its doorstep. Add to that its proximity to the Sun Devil Stadium, which gives it enormous game-day foot traffic, and you have a vibrant retail space that’s ripe for new ideas.

Among them: a generous ground floor that’s reminiscent of a grand reading hall in a historic library. It’s where an expanded array of ASU apparel, specialty items, and general merchandise now live large. Several large “formations” made of reclaimed wood float inside the openness and are meant to evoke the hills rising from the Arizona desert. They house special retail pavilions. One holds Pat Tillman merchandise. Another is an Apple pavilion, which sets it apart from the other brands in the larger technology center.

Other spaces and features include community room that floats above the first floor and accommodates a diverse range of events from game-day screenings to book signings, board meetings, even small wedding receptions; several outdoor terraces; study spaces; Wi-Fi; tech support. A Grab N Go opens at 6 a.m. and flows outside to a communal patio. A second food and beverage venue sources locally and organically and changes its offering throughout the day. In the morning, it’s a coffeehouse. Mid-day: a light lunch venue featuring panini-style sandwiches. Late afternoon/evening: a wine bar (serving the community of Tempe, faculty, staff, and of-age students).


Notably missing: textbooks. There is no inventory of them. The main campus bookstore in the campus core holds the stacks of course material, although students can order books online and pick them up at the Marketplace.

According to the National Association of College Stores, course material sales have been on a slow decline for at least the last decade. Sea changes in higher education that include the rise of digital materials and new teaching and learning systems are part of the story. And so is the rise in campus amenities and the idea that the campus store could be reimagined and turned into one of them.

What do students and the campus community have to look forward to as part of that reinvention? Healthier food options in bookstore cafes and grab-and-go eateries, says Tony Ellis, vice president, industry advancement at NACS.

There will also be more tech support for their devices and help accessing digital content and different platforms. And, of course, more insignia merchandise. It’s a revenue stream-with-heart. Insignia apparel and school supplies are ways for students to express a connection with their school that will have benefits for student and institution. “Long-term studies,” says Ellis, “show students who are highly engaged and connected to their college or university are more likely to perform better and persist to graduation.”