"If anyone told me 20 years ago that some day I would reach near-full
retirement eligibility and that I would take on a more demanding,
complicated job, I wouldn't believe it," Ken Bowers said with a tone of
wonder. "I could be sipping mai tais on a beach in Maui."
In fact, at age 59, able to retire with nearly his full pay or the cash
equivalent after 25 years as the head of the bookstore at the
University of California at Santa Barbara, Bowers decided to forgo a
Hawaiian idyll for what he called "a lot of new challenges." Last
February, 25 years to the day after joining UCSB, he left and several
days later became director of the Stanford Bookstore in Stanford,
Among the challenges and changes: while UCSB had one store selling
15,000 titles, Stanford consists of six very different stores. Besides
the 62,000-sq.-ft. main store that has more than 130,000 titles, "one
of the largest college book departments in the country," the
"bookstore" includes the museum shop at the Cantor Center for the Arts;
the Stanford Shop at the Stanford Shopping Center, a mall; the Stanford
Professional Bookstore, a three-story shop in downtown Palo Alto that
has had a medical and technical emphasis but that is now becoming more
of a "community resource"; the Track House, a store next to Stanford's
athletic facilities whose bestselling items are athletic apparel and
beverages; and a convenience store in the student union. "No two are
the same," Bowers said. "Just coordinating management is a lot of fun."
Another challenge: everyone in the executive team, including the
textbook manager, trade book manager, general merchandise manager and
assistant director, has held his or her position less than a year.
"There is no institutional memory at the executive level," Bowers said.
"But the good news is that they are all extremely competent and have
great credentials. In time, they are going to be very, very powerful."
View from the Dark Side
The other great change is that Bowers went from an institutional store,
in other words, one run by the university, to a contract management
store, one leased by a chain, in this case Follett Corp.'s Higher
Education Group, which, among other things, manages stores on more than
700 campuses. "One of the reasons I made the change," Bowers explained,
"is out of intellectual curiosity. I've always wanted to see what it
would be like. I had talked with Follett about doing something like
this if the right job came along. The right job did come along, and
they made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
Of course, contract management (the other main player is Barnes &
Noble College) evokes "a lot of fear" among college booksellers, as
Bowers put it. In fact, Bowers has been teased frequently about his
"move to the dark side." A former National Association of College
Stores president who is still involved in NACS and CAMEX activities,
Bowers recently was presented with a Star Wars book and a Pez dispenser
with a Darth Vader head on top by the NACS executive committee.
Concerning the Follett experience, Bowers essentially said so far, so
good. "They've done everything to make this a smooth and successful
transition. It's not at all the dark side a lot of people would like to
think." Bowers described the differences from UCSB "subtle. There's no
question that in a chain-store environment that more decisions are made
at the home office. I don't view it as bad, just as different. The flip
side is that in Oak Brook [the Chicago suburb where the Follett Higher
Education Group's home office is], a whole team of professional people
is there to help. It's a resource that's difficult to come by if we
were a standalone store."
Bowers expressed a hope that eventually the fear of contract management
would abate. "As time goes by and myths fade," he continued, "more
people will be willing to work at a contract management store. The
bottom line is that if you love the book business, the mode of
ownership doesn't matter."
Bowers has several projects in the work; perhaps the biggest involves
receiving. Bowers wants to lessen the store's emphasis on central
distribution and have more "store-specific" deliveries, eventually
working up to a just-in-time approach.
He also plans to put a stronger emphasis on commencement programs and
offer more graduate packs. He'll introduce a product that he had at
UCSB that worked so well it has been picked up by more than 100 other
schools: a graduation stole, "sort of like a neck tie," featuring the
school name and seal, that graduates wear over their cap and gowns.
After the ceremony, graduates can give the stole to people who have
made a difference, whether family members or professors or friends.
The Stanford Bookstore's flagship store and Ken Bowers (left) with Tom Peters, a
keynote speaker at CAMEX last spring.
Bowers also wants to have more "event-related selling." Thus, at buy
back and rush periods, the store will put up balloons and banners, have
entertainment and music, to "introduce the element of fun and
excitement. We need to create a party environment in the retail
This is particularly important at the six buy back periods, he said,
since "we have to have used books to sell used books" and we want the
students to feel "we are not taking them for granted."
Besides taking on the new job, Bowers has made a striking change on a
personal level. "We gave up a 2,700-sq.-ft. house in rural Santa
Barbara County with 50-100 palm trees for an 18th floor penthouse in
South San Francisco with no balcony, one living plant and windows that
open just a little bit," he said with a tone of amazement. "We traded
our scenic lush garden for a view of the bay and the bridge. Call me
crazy, but I enjoy every day."