UNC to outsource its bookstore to Barnes & Noble

UNC-Chapel Hill will outsource its 100-year-old bookstore to Barnes & Noble in a $30-million, 10-year deal announced Thursday.

Employees, faculty and students had argued vigorously against turning the UNC Student Stores over to private management, but university officials said Thursday that the deal will quadruple the earnings that go to student scholarships.

The university will continue to operate a print shop and a newly opened pharmacy, but Barnes & Noble College Booksellers will manage everything else starting July 1. Forty-eight full-time store workers will still be employed at their current salary, either by Barnes & Noble or by the university, UNC said in its announcement.

Employees who are within 18 months of a five-year benefit threshold or within three years of the 30-year mark will stay on the university payroll until they reach vesting or retirement. The 31 who move to the Barnes & Noble payroll will be guaranteed a job for three years, the university said.

“Protecting our employees and making sure they were treated fairly was at the highest concern for the university in going through this process,” said Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises. “The three-year employment guarantee is fairly unusual for a college bookstore transfer like this.”

The store will also continue to hire students as part-time employees, Ives said.

Employees were told Thursday as the announcement went out to media. The reaction, Ives said, was “what you would expect. No one likes to be told that there’s change in their job.”

Critics said the privatization move was unnecessary and risked the hometown vibe of the store and the future of its employees, many of whom have worked at the store for decades. Faculty didn’t want to lose the personal service they receive in ordering textbooks, and they worried about higher book prices for students.

Protests were staged in front of the store. A “Save Student Stores” campaign gained attention on social media. On Tuesday, the group tweeted, “Student Stores does it better than Xerox and they can do it better than Follett, B&N, or Amazon. #StudentStoresDoesItBetter #NoOutsourcing.”

UNC said Barnes & Noble forecasts an annual payment to the university of more than $3 million and will guarantee that amount for the first two years. After debt service and other expenses, the store will net $1.75 million to $2 million annually for need-based scholarships. The contract includes a $1 million signing bonus that will go to scholarships.

The current store was not losing money. It is entirely self-supporting and has generated more than $27 million in student scholarships in the past 60 years, including $400,000 last year.

“For that we are enormously grateful, and to the staff who have also hired our students,” said Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid. “But this plan for Student Stores will create millions of additional dollars in need-based scholarship funds for talented and deserving students – supplemental sources that we greatly need.”

Ort served on an advisory committee that unanimously recommended Barnes & Noble. Another large company, Follett, had previously been considered a front-runner; it had launched the privatization talk last year when it sent an unsolicited offer to UNC.

Six companies bid on some or all aspects of the bookstore’s management, as well as current store employees, who submitted a five-year plan to revamp the store and boost profits.

The News & Observer requested the bids, which are public records, on Feb. 24. The university released the bids Thursday, about 20 minutes before the outsourcing announcement was made.

Ives said the final deal with Barnes & Noble was significantly better than the company’s initial bid.

According to an email obtained by The News & Observer, UNC also had discussed the option of using Amazon as a virtual textbook provider. Ives wrote in the email that Amazon broke off the talks because of House Bill 2, the new law that limits legal protections for LGBT individuals.

Ives said he could not comment on that Thursday but did confirm that Amazon was a bidder in the process.

Some had feared that the Bull’s Head Bookshop would disappear with privatization, but the Barnes & Noble deal provides for expansion of the shop. It will move to a larger space on the store’s third floor, with a fireplace and comfortable chairs for author events. The Bull’s Head will keep its name, as will the UNC Student Stores itself.

Barnes & Noble operates bookstores at nearly 750 U.S. colleges, including 25 in North Carolina. Among those are four Barnes & Noble bookstores on public campuses – N.C. A&T State, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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