Shakespeare and shoelaces

Kenyon Bookstore thrives

Whether it's chocolate, lightbulbs, or Turtle Wax that you're after, chances are the place to find it, at least in Gambier, is the Kenyon Bookstore. That's due to the animating spirit of its manager for the past eighteen years, Jack Finefrock, who knows that his customers need shoelaces as well as Shakespeare.

Finefrock estimates that students come into the bookstore, on average, seven to nine times a day. They'll pop in to play chess, write term papers, meet up with friends, check out the newspapers, and chat with professors. It's a general store, living room, kiosk, unofficial student center, and coffee shop rolled into one. "We're a de facto student union," claims Finefrock. He has been told that the bookstore bears more traffic than a downtown Cleveland office building.

The bookstore wasn't always the campus center that it is today. It has a varied history nearly as long as that of the College. In fact, as reported in Publishers Weekly, the American Booksellers Association recently saluted Kenyon's as the longest continuously-operating college bookstore, and the third-oldest bookstore of any kind, in America. At 172 years of age, the bookstore has never been in better health.

Created after four years of planning, the bookstore was the brainchild of Philander Chase, founder and first president of the College. In a letter dated August 1825, Chase sought funds to establish a bookstore at Kenyon, for, he wrote, "school books cannot be had in our poor country `bookstores.' . . . Is every young man to send hither and thither for a book and perhaps be obliged after all to send to the East before he can be accommodated? Surely not. We must have a bookstore belonging to the Institution . . .," with the profits to support a scholarship fund.

Housed in a log cabin, the bookstore opened in 1829. After several intervening moves, it took up residence in its current, center-campus location in 1968.

The store has been most successful during those eras in which it has sold a broad, if not bewildering, range of merchandise. In the 1860s, for example, a former store manager, one Mr. Putnam, received a letter praising the store's astonishing variety of wares, everything from "squirrel traps to gingham dresses." And books, of course.

But by 1982, when Finefrock was hired as manager, the store had strayed from its colorful history as a books-cum-variety store. He recalls it as dimly lit, selling nothing but books, and operating at a deficit. Finefrock's mission was to remake the store as an inviting place satisfying a broad spectrum of needs and desires; to make it central to the College in purpose as well as geography; to balance the books, and, at the same time, to strengthen the community.

Finefrock arrived in Gambier having recently reversed the fortunes of an ailing bookstore in the similar village of Chautauqua, New York, a rural hamlet with a bookish heritage and extreme seasonal fluctuation in population. Here, as there, Finefrock transformed the store from a site of limited business transactions to a social center where people wanted to spend more of their time and money. His genius for expansion multiplied the store's purposes, making it a community resource that also happened to sell everything from Socrates to soccer tees to socks, and teas. Day-bright lighting, whimsical soft sculptures, comfortable seating, a children's castle, and a bottomless coffee urn detained and relaxed customers, leading them to make more purchases. The bookstore profited from its customers' delight, returning the profits to the Kenyon scholarship fund.

Finefrock's resounding success as a businessman brought press coverage. Rolling Stone and Lisa Birnbach's College Book both named Kenyon's bookstore the best in the country.

A more localized index of Finefrock's success is the extent to which people in the community think of the bookstore as theirs. Community members treat the bookstore as though it were a public trust, like a park. Everyone cares about the bookstore. Everyone wants a say in how it is managed.

Finefrock's formula has been adopted by successful bookstore chains. "We had sofas, music, coffee and bagels before Borders or any other imitators did. If we had patented it, Kenyon would be rich!" he laughs ruefully.

The Internet has broadened the market for the bookstore's considerable mail-order business. Finefrock sells used, unique copies of books to universities worldwide, including the Bodleian and the Oriental Institute libraries in Oxford, England. The University of Tokyo finds it cheaper to order its books through the Kenyon Bookstore than to buy them direct.

"I see the store not as a business enterprise, but as an integral part of the cultural life of the College, as a liberal art," he stated some fifteen years ago in an interview with the Youngstown Vindicator. In the same period, Ohio Magazine reported that he had recreated the bookstore less as a business than as a community service. "When the power is out, people gravitate to the store. They may buy batteries and candles but they may also just stay. It's sort of an emergency center," he remarked.

The pastiche that is the bookstore--general store, playground, living room, and coffee shop rolled into one--reflects Finefrock's joy in bringing disparate elements together under one roof. He likes customers to discover life-changing books while sipping coffee in his store. Finefrock sees little essential difference between the store and the seminar room; in his view, each should foster a relaxed atmosphere promoting dissemination of knowledge and community values--with a bit of fun and whimsy thrown in.

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