Features & Columns

By the Books

The Spartan Bookstore comes full circle, and one lowly receiving clerk remembers the absurdity of business 'samsara'
SHELF LIVES: Back in 1956, the Spartan Bookstore beckoned with gleaming shelves full of textbooks. Photograph by Arnold Del Carlo. Courtesy of the Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History, SJSU

THIS WEEK, more proof that if one remains in San Jose long enough, there will always exist absurdity to write about. A few weeks ago, Spartan Shops at San Jose State University officially offloaded the operation of Spartan Bookstore to Barnes & Noble, creating a contentious situation in which its own managers didn't even know what their job descriptions were going to be. Employees were given a one-year contract with B&N, but that's all they were guaranteed.

Forgive me for sounding apocalyptic, but the college textbook business appears to be in the twilight of its existence these days, and no one knows what will happen. More and more students are renting textbooks, sharing them or devising ways not to shell out money for them.

One can forecast a future in which all students view learning modules instead of books, depending on what the class prescribes. The seeds of this future emerged with the World Wide Web 17 years ago, but it's now starting to become a reality. The Kindle and the Nook are here to stay. Pretty soon we won't even see textbooks on the shelves at Spartan Bookstore. We'll see nothing but bar codes instead.

Everyone talks about the death of traditional books and what it means for authors, but how about bookstore receiving employees? If professors don't order books anymore, what's going to happen? Spartan Bookstore sells more than just textbooks, obviously, but since I have a past direct connection to the absurdity of all this, I just had to bust in on the place and revisit the ludicrous history of it all.

A few weeks ago, over at Spartan Bookstore's off-site warehouse, at Seventh and Commercial streets, the facility was being shut down and gutted. Hardly anyone was left. It was the bleakest-looking empty warehouse I've ever visited. It looked even more boring than when it was stocked and operational. Apparently B&N has no use for the facility and is moving what's left of the receiving operation to the downstairs area of the bookstore.

Ironically, this is originally where the receiving area was 20 years ago, before it moved to the off-site warehouse in the first place. I was a receiving employee at that time, so I cannot help but laugh at the preposterous chain of events that has come full circle.

Now, I am biased due to my Spartan Shops experience—the amount of ineptitude I perceived in that company would fill a textbook—but there were indeed good times. Twenty years ago, our warehouse manager downstairs in the bookstore was a lanky old character named Mack Johnson. A legend among campus staffers for a generation, he looked exactly like Orville Redenbacher.

A hoot to work for and drink with, Johnson was approaching the end of his career and saw the big changes coming. That is, he didn't want to be around when the young suits came in and moved the entire warehouse to its new off-site location at Seventh and Commercial, which they did.

So he planned a covert retirement and didn't even tell his own staff. We all showed up to work one day and learned that he had left. That was that. He escaped quietly. No going-away parties, no nothing. It was probably the classiest exit I've ever seen anyone pull off.

Under Mack's tenure, at the insistence of his superiors, there already existed another off-site warehouse, a small unit, way up on 13th Street. This is where the bookstore, in all its mismanaged glory, would store old fixtures it couldn't use anymore but refused to throw out.

As receiving employees, it was part of our jobs, at $7 an hour, to drive a half-busted moving van all the way up 13th Street, past 101, past the golf course, and unload piles of broken fixtures and furniture, literally throwing them into a rented warehouse that was never used for anything else. It was the most useless waste of space I've ever seen. Eventually, the bookstore found enough brain cells to eliminate this expense when the new off-site facility opened at Seventh and Commercial.

Jump to 2011, and we've come full circle. What's left of the Spartan Bookstore warehouse is moving back from Seventh and Commercial to the bookstore itself. There's an ancient term for this: Samsara, the continuing cycles of rebirth and suffering. Textbooks are not actually dead. They are just reincarnated.