B&N Earns Mixed Reviews

Bookworm party

click to enlarge INDEPENDENT SOURCE: Susan Comas, owner of Bayboro Books on Seventh Avenue S., worries about a Barnes & Noble "monopoly." - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
INDEPENDENT SOURCE: Susan Comas, owner of Bayboro Books on Seventh Avenue S., worries about a Barnes & Noble "monopoly."

It was one helluva bookworm party on Oct. 24 when throngs of city officials, University of South Florida employees and students packed downtown's newest addition — a 10,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble at Third Street and Fifth Avenue South. Attendees, jacked up on free Starbucks coffee and sugary treats, browsed the store's aisles of books and hobnobbed with city and university officials, who couldn't stop smiling. University staff called the bookstore a great addition to the campus. City leaders, like Mayor Rick Baker, praised the store as downtown's newest community hub.

"I think there should be a vibrancy indication of downtowns based on how many Starbucks there are," Baker said before the doors opened. "We have four Starbucks!"

But owners of the two independently owned bookstores downtown were not as enthusiastic about the corporate bookseller's grand opening.

"We were under the impression they were expanding the campus bookstore," says Haslam's owner Ray Hinst. "We were chagrined in the last couple days to find out that it's a full-blown bookstore."

While Hinst doesn't see B&N taking much business away from the 73-year-old St. Pete landmark, the owner of Bayboro Books just three blocks away is a little more concerned.

"We've been doing this for a long time now," said Susan Comas. "But I'm a little concerned that this part of the store [the trade book section] might suffer a bit."

Comas says 25-year-old Bayboro Books has always co-existed peacefully with the campus bookstore, which sells textbooks nearby Bayboro in a small space on First Street S., but ever since B&N took it over two years ago she's had trouble staying competitive. (Eventually, B&N will sell the textbooks only out of the new store and will close its First Street location.) In the past, Comas says she used Florida's public record laws to obtain a list of the textbooks used in a semester to stock her inventory, but recently her requests have been refused. Ashok Dhingra, regional vice chancellor of administration and finance, denies this; he says any citizen can obtain the book list by filing a formal public records request.

Comas has tried to accommodate students on financial aid by delaying deposits of their checks until their aid clears and lowering prices on certain textbooks.But after this latest bookstore opening, Comas feels like she's being squeezed by a corporate behemoth.

"It's like a monopoly," she said.

On the student level, reactions are mixed. The first students to study at the Starbucks located inside mainly described it as "convenient."

"Yeah, I might come get a coffee," said Susan Dickson. "I don't plan on buying any book."

Said student Lauren Berg: "For atmosphere, I prefer Borders to Barnes & Noble. It's nice that it's nearby and you can walk."

Jordan Guthrie wasn't so gracious.

"I either shop online or locally," the English major said. "My favorite bookstore is Haslam's. If I can find a book there, I would never go here."

Long after the high-profile guests had left, the tables inside the new store were full and several older people had wandered in to browse the aisles. Even a homeless man carrying a bulging backpack took a moment to enjoy the graphic novel section. His presence seemed to validate the new store as a downtown attraction: It had enticed all contingents of the neighborhood, including those not necessarily invited.