Two years ago, I took a weekend trip to New York City with my mom and my sister to check out a few schools. We spent our days shopping, touring colleges, and hitting all of the tourist spots. One morning after visiting New York University, my mom dragged me to the college bookstore to look at apparel. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I wanted to go out and explore my favorite city—anything outside instead of hiding in a store. Despite my reluctance, my mom insisted on looking around, so to kill time, I conceded to her wishes and decided to browse the books. But when I walked through the store, I found so much more. There were socks, bracelets, bags, hats, and even rain ponchos. I eventually stumbled upon a sports bra in the women’s clothing section. Regrettably, I had neglected to pack a sports bra on that trip, so I decided to buy it. It wasn’t what I had in mind for a new bra, bright purple with an “NYU” logo plastered on the front, but it fit the bill.
As this same bra now sits on the floor of my dorm room, I wonder why I was able to buy a bra, of all things, at a college bookstore. College bookstores are no longer simply stores of books, as the title might suggest. Instead, they’ve become warehouses of college paraphernalia. Of course, at Columbia, this includes the basic t-shirt with our crown or lion on the front, but you can find much more at our bookstore. Right out on Broadway and 115th, you can find pretty much anything. From a crystal golf ball clock to a pair of yoga socks, the Columbia bookstore feels a lot more like a tourist shop than an actual bookstore.
Most students I know at Columbia don’t even go to the Columbia bookstore to get their textbooks. Many go to to Book Culture for textbooks and books for pleasure alike. Others turn to Amazon to buy their textbooks. With all of the other, cheaper, places to buy books, it’s no wonder that the bookstore’s intentions surpass providing books and even basic college themed clothing. College bookstores must now find other ways to stay in business. Dartmouth had to close down their bookstore after they weren’t able to sell enough books. Selling strange merchandise is now expected in many large college bookstores, and apparently nothing is off limits.
Maybe the fact that I was able to buy a bra at a college bookstore has to do with why I didn’t want to go into the bookstore in the first place. I’d rather go shopping at a used bookstore, where there aren’t ridiculous items like crystal golf ball clocks. It feels odd to have such unnecessary and bizzare items available. At the same time, however, it makes sense that it’s there; bookstores are businesses, and to survive, there has to be enough product to sell. Columbia’s is certainly no exception. Although I haven’t been able able to find a bra at the Columbia bookstore, rest assured that there are plenty of other random items to browse.
As I walk through the aisles, I meet Raphael, a high school senior, who was also attracted to the bookstore by the Columbia paraphernalia. He is planning to buy some sweaters to take back home with him. In fact, when I ask what he thought of college bookstores, he responds, “I think of merchandise, specifically, clothes that brand the name of the University.”
The shiny merchandise—the snow globes and shot glasses—inside the windows of the tiny shops in Times Square supposedly represent the New York City experience, but they do not replace the unique sites found within the city. College bookstores similarly bait people like Raphael and my mom, with a collection of random, confusing, appealing trinkets, underwear included. These things (these sweatshirts) do not stand in for visiting campus. It’s important to remember the experience, not just the sweatshirt bought while there.
Enjoy leafing through our fifth issue!