March 2016 Features

Where People Meet Ideas

Interview by Nancy Schmucker ’98

14_ARCHWAYS_Huang_webFor James Huang, the new director of Bryn Mawr’s Bookstore, books and bookstores are a way of life. He spent five years as the bookstore manager at Kenyon College; co-owned Deadly Passions Bookshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his wife; co-organized Bouchercon, a mystery genre convention; and currently runs Crum Creek Press. We spoke with him in December, just as he was ending his first semester at Bryn Mawr.

AB: What are your impressions of Bryn Mawr, so far?

JH: There’s a really strong sense of community here and a passion for the institution. People are falling all over themselves to help make the bookstore a success. So Stephanie Fiscella, our assistant director, and I are asking a lot of questions and absorbing that enthusiasm.

AB: What attracted you to Bryn Mawr?

JH: I was very attracted to the chance to build a new independent store. We want it to be interesting, fresh, and fun. Bryn Mawr students are under a lot of pressure, and we want the bookstore to be a kind of oasis, a place to escape for a few minutes to see something that puts a smile on their faces before they have to go back to class or grind out that next paper.

 AB: What are your plans for this year?

JH: We’re working on our website. That’s taking longer than expected, but it’s important that we get it right. We are also revamping book options for better affordability and restocking merchandise to be more Bryn Mawr-centric.

AB: Tell us more about book affordability.

JH: I’m focused on getting costs down. Just yesterday, I worked with a professor to get the cost of a text from over $100, down to $14. It took a bit of time and research, but we found an older edition that works just fine. Now, there’s no question that some things the faculty want will be hard to get. But that’s okay; it’s actually fun to play detective and try to find books.

We’re also working on a robust buyback program. I prefer it to rental programs, which aren’t always the best choice for students. Plus, rental presumes students don’t want to keep their books. That said, we’ll still offer rentals, but I want students to have more options.

 AB: Do students still purchase their books in this store or do they go online?

JH: We need to survey that at Bryn Mawr, but at Kenyon, we lost about 25 percent of sales to online sellers over a 15-year period before I got there. Better pricing and customer service brought some of that business back. I’m confident we can do that here.

AB: Do digital books pose a challenge?

JH: At Kenyon, students consistently chose print over digital, even at a premium price. It’s partly because they want to write in them but also because digital requires a dependable Internet connection, which isn’t always available.

 AB: There’s something to holding that book and flipping pages.

JH: Yes! It’s fun and sometimes helpful to see the notes from prior readers, as though you’re having a conversation with them. It’s not that we’re Luddites. We now offer a digital option on some titles, but I believe the advantages may have been oversold.

 AB: About how much does a student spend on books per semester?

JH: It can be as little as $100 or as much as $700; it depends on the courseload. Digital is not driving the cost of books down because the people who produce it—publishers, software engineers, website designers—get paid better than those who produce print.

 AB: You’ve been in the book business for a long time. Can you talk about that?

JH: I love books. But it’s not just about passion; it’s about their transformative nature. Studies show that the presence of books in the house is one determinant of a child’s success in the future; also, that the more you read for fun, the more successful you are at work.

I also believe that bookstores, independent bookstores specifically, are an essential element of our democracy. They are where people meet ideas, and where idea makers (authors) earn their living. So, it’s really vital to society that independent bookstores remain strong.

 AB: Tell us about Crum Creek Press.

JH: I was having the problem that every mystery reader has: it was getting harder and harder to find new books. So, I got together with some friends and started a newsletter as a source of information for readers. We were accumulating tons of material and started thinking we could compile it into a book. That was the beginning of Crum Creek Press. Today, we do two things: continuing to help readers find books and also reprinting books that have fallen out of print.