Several weeks ago, the VSA held a forum with the VP of Finance Robert “Bob” Walton and Dean of Strategic Planning Marianne Begemann about a number of ongoing construction projects on campus, including the planned renovation of Juliet Theater and the introduction of an off-campus cooperative bookstore. The project is one I look forward to in many respects for its ability to bring lower cost books, new dining options and more product types to campus. That said, some information Walton shared that evening leads me to express concern over the impact, or lack thereof, the new cooperative bookstore will have to address a growing cost issue for businesses in the Arlington area immediately surrounding Vassar.
First, for background, many do not realize that almost the entire Arlington block of Collegeview Ave. and Raymond Ave. near campus is actually Vassar property. A for-profit subsidiary of Vassar, College Properties LLC, is responsible for the ownership, maintenance and leasing of this property that includes many local restaurants and the Juliet theater property. The Juliet theater space is going to be split into a dining area leased to a company called BurgerFi and a college bookstore that will focus on selling a specific set of products. These products will include textbooks ordered by professors for classes, Vassar memorabilia and other general goods. One thing Walton noted at the VSA meeting was that this co-op bookstore will not be selling products that compete with local Arlington businesses, such as MyMarket or Three Arts bookstore. On one hand, this is good news. The thought of the bookstore moving off campus next to another trade bookstore and local grocery sounds like a struggle in the making. However, this action comes at another cost.
While I want local, family-owned businesses as much as the next person, I wonder the last time administrators like Bob Walton set foot in these same businesses and saw their prices. One notorious product of college campuses is the rapid inflation of prices with businesses in and around the area. It’s almost ironic to see how much we pay for school supplies, food, snacks and other products from the stores in and around Vassar’s campus, when most of us lack even a regular income. With word that the new bookstore will have no competing products, it means prices now lay exclusively in the hands of these local business owners.
Without competing products, the cooperative bookstore will allow these local businesses to continue charging whatever prices they feel comfortable to Vassar students. This might be perfectly fine to you, but in the status quo this denies a significant member of the Vassar community from enjoying the creature comforts these stores can provide. Only a more privileged sect of our community can afford to shop regularly there, and those who cannot afford can either walk a mile north to the supermarket or simply not have these items.
This issue is inherently a double-edged sword. Vassar’s decision is what’s best for keeping these Arlington stores in good fiscal health, while allowing the new bookstore to coexist. However, these same stores are considered in many ways connected to the Vassar community and atmosphere, and their prices are at times a hard reality to swallow. It’s not fair that these stores compete with a bookstore that has to only break even, let alone generate a profit. On the other hand, the chief customers of these stores and restaurants remain members of the Vassar community.
I think there is room for compromise, though. The College ought to find a way to let the local Arlington businesses continue to remain here, but also realize that this new bookstore can be a resource in so many ways both realized and unrealized by the Vassar Administration. There is already a realization of how this space can be an advantage for cheaper, more accessible textbooks, a new venue for performances and practices and a casual congregation space that attracts more students into Arlington. However, they should also realize the advantage of at last having a store in the Vassar community that doesn’t have to worry about making a profit. The ability for students to get some products without shelling out a premium can also offer a lot of good for Vassar students and be an equalizing force off campus. I cannot say what kind of products and to what extent this could go, but a discussion about it with students on financial aid at Vassar could be great information for the Finance & Administration office.
Vassar pays its students $8 an hour, and this is only a recent pay increase to meet a state minimum wage increase. I think it wouldn’t hurt for our community to talk about a lot of the costs both on campus and around Arlington. I think a great way to facilitate more accessible pricing remains at the heart of our new bookstore.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.