Calling All Bibliofolk: Resist the Transformers, Save UCI's Bookstore, and Take Back the University, Too.

Categories: OC Bookly
This week, Mr. Bib happily shares a rant-analysis-thought piece by a fellow scholar-activist who takes on the dismal decision-making at our shared alma mater and place of employment. My biblio-pal Michelle Chihara is a PhD candidate, an MFA, a creative writer and sometime journalist, and knows how to write a righteous homily on a Sunday morning.  Yes, the UCI Bookstore is, as she describes it, the latest victim of the suits, privatizers, consultants, bottom-liners and the failure of imagination.  As our mutual friend, Jonathan Cohen, one-time staffer at the store and all-around smart dude observes, "Universities are becoming something else, something more naked--entities that survive for the sake of their own survival." Thankfully, some of us object!

Here, then, a slightly shortened version of Chihara's excellent, angry and thoughtful "The Real Price of Transforming the Bookstore."  For her citations and links. and the complete essay, go later this week to the nifty site Avidly.  Meanwhile...
This week's guest blogger

Under new management
At the University of Virginia a new and well-respected president was sacked by the board. It has become increasingly clear that the move to oust President Teresa Sullivan was prompted, in part, by her lack of love for "emerging technology." [Mr. Bib notes Sullivan's eventual reinstatement, yippie.] The board members plotting to fire her talked about inevitable "transformations." This is the same rhetoric currently being used to gut the humanities at the University of California and elsewhere: Economic challenges demand "transformation." Supposedly, board members and administrators understand that transformation better than academics. 

At UCI we have our own "transformation" underway. The administration is killing the bookstore. Long posters in the window store are festooned with images of what seem to be anteaters in Transformers costumes. A campus-wide email trumped a "Bookstore Transformation": "We are also developing a new brand to reflect these and other transformations occurring across the store!" (italics in original). The administration's proxy, who signed the email as "Stacey Murren, Interim Director," has prompted many of the long-term staff at the bookstore to "retire." This is the primary "transformation" thus far, along with a decrease in actual books for sale. The last few author readings were held in a humanities building, not in the store, in protest. A management theorist, it seems, Murren required that the staff take personality tests.
New bookstore staff test
She asked that they consult their personality color analysis before interacting with other staff, to ease interaction amongst people of different personality colors. But it's the push away from a commitment to books that has pushed longtime books department manager and "Interim Co-Director" Matt Astrella and his peers out. At a recent reading, which packed over a hundred people into a room in HIB, faculty, staff and alumni gave standing ovations, gifts, and tearful speeches for the departing bookstore staff. The feeling in the air was clear: We were mourning a crucial part of UC Irvine's intellectual life.

Famous writers dig bookstore readings
The University's own communications officer profiled Matt Astrella in 2009. She wrote that he helped the "UCI Bookstore become a center of campus literary life and home for new authors." The Zot Zine last month linked to a piece in The College Store citing Astrealla's Author Series as a primary example of how bookstores can sell more books and "boost sales while strenghtening ties between the campus and community."

But Astrella has been forced into retirement and the Author Series is no more. It's not clear what the new brand will be. Perhaps we will have a sexy Electronic Text Store or an Enhanced Sweatshirt Stand, or a hot Pretty Please Buy Here Instead of Amazon Spot. In any case, the new brand will no longer focus on those antiquated, nostalgic repositories of human memory and learning, those collections of mere words, those symbols of liberal arts and research and education: Books.

On the one hand, administrators like to tell Michelle Latiolais, the co-director of UCI's MFA in Creative Writing, that the storied writing program is a "jewel in the crown." But on the other hand, those same administrators continue to support decision like the one to kill the bookstore. Latiolais treasures the reading series as a beloved "victory lap" for authors like Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Alice Seybold and Izzy Prcic, who travel "home" to UC Irvine. Murren's first take on the series, according to Astrella and others at meetings, was that no one cared. Once it was made clear to her that plenty of people both attended and cared deeply, she suggested that the bookstore charge admission. This suggests that the person now running the bookstore rarely, if ever, attends author readings. More importantly, this suggests that administrators who don't value or respect books believe they are best suited to find new ways to monetize them.

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