Vision of a campus bookstore

Being an international student who studied engineering here at the University, I have come to realize a fact — though it might be my superficial observation — that not as many people go to the library to find a good read anymore. I learned a long time ago that the University has one of the largest book collections among United States colleges, yet so many people are not using it. What a pity!

I grew up in a middle class family in China, and my parents worked hard to put me through a prestigious university in the U.S. Neither of them had been to a college before, nor were they avid readers, so there was never someone around to give me suggestions of a good read. 

But my teenage curiosity drove me like one of those Parisian flaneries, who stroll around the  city to explore. I often wandered the streets of where I’m from and always ended up in a bookstore where I found myself browsing through new magazines and books about topics I never even knew of. 

The bookshelves taking over the entire wall, the beautiful book-cover artwork and the smell of paper and ink all contribute to this wondrous world of a bookstore. 

My recent trip to some independent bookstores in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago area prompted me to think about this question: Why do we seem to leisurely read less than we did before? 

Most of the time, we discover a good read by physically going into bookstores, and, of course, by bookstore I mean serious bookstores where there are knowledgeable store clerks who can communicate the publishing and arriving date of each of their magazines, employees know the names of each new book author and books fill up every inch of space in the bookstore. 

I am not referring to some campus-area bookstore with half of the floor selling T-shirts and notebooks, where the bookshelf is half empty, and I say that with all the respect in the world.

Because we don’t have any — what I would consider — authentic bookstores on campus, we lose that spontaneity where people wander into a bookstore on the street and find a good read. 

So I thought of an obvious solution: Why doesn’t the Main Library bring the books to students? Like a traditional Saturday farmer’s market in the U.S. where fresh vegetables are sold, the library could present some selections of their books on the Quad for people to browse and borrow (using their i-cards).

And if it were financially possible, the library could even rent a small shop on Green Street, put in some cozy decorations and leave the rest to the piles of books for the next walk-in flanerie like me. 

If a ground-floor library shop would be too much of a financial burden for the library, even a second-floor shop would do the trick, as long as it sits in a high-traffic area. 

I recall my trip to Hong Kong a couple years ago. Due to its limited land area, the rent for a decent retail shop facing the street was very expansive, so clever bookstore owners moved their stores to the second floor of many residential and retail buildings for cheaper rent. Gradually they developed a reputation in Hong Kong and around the world. And they still serve their honorable duty to deliver knowledge to people in the traditional and most enjoyable way.

I love the spontaneity of shopping at bookstores. When I traveled to cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago, I ran into one of those small magazine stands on the corner of the streets, and it really put a smile on my face. There was always something new and fascinating waiting for me to read. 

I hope our campus library could regularly bring up selections of their books to the Quad or elsewhere because I know it would inspire my next lovely romance with a book.

Jian Chen is an alumnus, Class of 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]