Bookstore debate continues

DANIEL McCABE | Should the University outsource management of the McGill Bookstore to Chapters? As debate on the issue heats up, Vice-Principal (Administration and Finance) Phyllis Heaphy says a final decision is likely to be made when the Board of Governors meets on Novermber 24.

"If the decision is to have new management, then I would hope this would be in place no later than two months after [the board's vote]," says Heaphy.

The case for Chapters was presented to Senate last week by an ad hoc workgroup Heaphy appointed to study proposals from a number of companies keen on taking over management of the bookstore.

"Chapters was the clear winner," says Students' Society president Tara Newell, a member of the workgroup.

But not everyone on campus supports the idea of outsourcing.

"Our own operation is able to deliver the goods. Like the saying goes, 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?'" says Dr. James Archibald, chair of the Senate Bookstore Committee and director of the Department of Languages and Translation in the Centre for Continuing Education.

In 1995, Archibald's committee commissioned a review of the McGill Bookstore by the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

"Their conclusion was that we had probably one of the best university bookstores in North America. This was the assessment of an unbiased, accredited association of bookstore professionals."

Archibald and some of his committee members are critical of the way in which Heaphy has dealt with the question of outsourcing.

"She has not been entirely forthright," asserts Archibald. "When she brought this issue to [the Senate Bookstore Committee], she indicated to us that if the proposal received significant opposition, she would drop it. Three-quarters of the committee saw no merit in the proposal  that seems like significant opposition to me. Yet she soldiers right on and ignores the promise she made to our committee.

"The vice-principal seems to have had one particular point of view all along and when we didn't agree with her, she apparently hand-selected a committee that would."

Responds Heaphy, "This is their perception. My point of view, though, was that they rejected [the idea] without going into the issues thoroughly enough. After all, we had a consultants' report recommending contracting out  to decide against the report, more work would have to be done, in my opinion."

Heaphy suggested that the Senate Bookstore Committee strike a subcommittee to look into the various management scenarios more carefully. "My proposal was rejected sine die."

Archibald also accuses Heaphy of keeping his committee in the dark when she first received unsolicited bids from outside companies to manage the bookstore. "We found out from a third party."

He says Heaphy didn't inform the bookstore committee that she had decided to hire the consulting firm of Samson Bélair Deloitte & Touche to do a report on the bids "until their study was well under way."

University bookstores serve a specialized clientele with particular academic needs  they differ in this way from other bookstores, according to Archibald. "We asked the consultants if they had considered this as they put together their report, and their reply was that they hadn't even thought about it."

In his presentation to Senate, the workgroup's chair, management professor Alistair Duff, explained why his team opted for Chapters over the other contenders  Barnes & Noble, Follett, the student-run Féderation des coopératives québécoises en milieu scolaire and McGill's current bookstore management team.

Chapters promised to increase profits, guaranteeing revenues of $750,000 annually. They would do this by attracting more customers to the store and not by raising prices, said Duff. Increased profits would result in the store's mortgage being paid off more quickly. Future revenues would then go to McGill's undergraduate and graduate student societies.

"We were all impressed," said Duff. "Chapters wants to make McGill the academic bookstore in the city."

Adds Newell, "Chapters has a network of stores and a good distribution system and that appealed to me. I've often been in classes where the number of students in the course was higher than the number of textbooks ordered by the professor. The books would be sold out and I would fall behind in my studies. It can take two weeks to get more textbooks through the bookstore. Chapters says it can get those books to us in three days."

One question raised at Senate concerned Chapters' lack of experience in managing university bookstores. "That might be an incentive for them to work even harder," says Newell. "They've been quite vocal about wanting to get into this market."

McGill and Chapters are currently negotiating a contract. Says Heaphy, "I have no authority to approve a contract of this nature on my own. What I can do is bring the contract to a mutually acceptable state for presentation at the board. Obviously the board may suggest further changes or reject it altogether."

Heaphy says the length of the proposed contract hasn't been discussed yet, but the deal would likely contain an escape clause in case either party became dissatisfied with the arrangement.

She acknowledges that the student societies could be the real winners if a Chapters deal is struck, not McGill itself. "McGill would not benefit financially as things now stand, but the whole community would benefit from improved service, more employment of students, and all the other non-financial advantages which are so well detailed in the workgroup's report."

Adds Heaphy, "More money would enable students to enhance their experience here. Students may also very well decide to return profits, once the building is paid off, to the student body in the form of lower book prices, for example.

"We have a very good bookstore at the moment. We just believe that someone who is in the business of selling books might do a better job than [McGill] whose primary purpose is not to sell books."

Archibald says that Senate ought to have an opportunity to hear a different point of view.

"We have a Senate committee on the bookstore and so far we've been studiously ignored while Senate considers this matter. That's unacceptable. If Senate issues us an invitation, we'll be very happy to address these issues in an open forum."

According to manager Horst Bitschofsky, the McGill Bookstore is on target to reach a surplus of $681,000 this year  not far off the $750,000 that Chapters guarantees it could make.

He and Archibald both take exception to remarks made by Duff and Newell in Monday's McGill Daily about the bookstore's management having shown, in Newell's words, "a lack of initiative."

"That's simply insulting and untrue," says Archibald. "The NACS report made several suggestions for improving the operation and McGill's bookstore management has been following up on them."

For instance, the store introduced a new strategy for dealing with student line-ups at the beginning of each semester. "We more than doubled our cash registers," says Bitschofsky. "The maximum wait outside the bookstore was only eight minutes this September. The wait to get to the cash registers was maybe a minute."

Archibald says the bookstore's financial performance is better than many seem to think. "The mortgage repayment schedule has been on target since the outset, in spite of the outrageous interest rates the University has demanded." The $35,000 bill for the consultants' report that Heaphy commissioned was also charged to the bookstore.

Whatever the outcome, Bitschofsky says, "There is a desire to move forward, to get on with what we do. If this recommendation is adopted, the challenge for us will remain the same  to continue to be at the forefront of Canada's university bookstores."