The Colgate Scene
March 2005

More than a bookstore
With the hope of bringing more business into downtown Hamilton, Colgate's bookstore has expanded its inventory and moved to the center of the village

It isn't just for textbooks anymore. In addition to Colgate merchandise, the Colgate Bookstore offers general books, dorm supplies, gifts, music, and movies -- and a plethora of public events, from book signings and readings to "knit-ins" and children's programs. For those who can't make it to Hamilton, there is, which has recently launched an online book-ordering feature with access to more than three million titles. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Tuesdays in the Colgate Bookstore are Senior Citizens Days. Residents over the age of 55 from Hamilton and surrounding communities flock to the bookstore -- and to other village merchants -- to take advantage of special discounts (at the bookstore, it's 10 percent off any purchase).

"On Saturdays," said the bookstore's director, Leslie Green Guilbault, "it's the stroller brigade." Young families are drawn to the store by the children's programs offered in the Class of 2003 Event Room on the third floor. And the store itself, fronting Lebanon and Utica Streets on Hamilton's five-way main intersection, is a convenient meeting place -- so popular that the store added three diaper changing stations.

Since the bookstore moved downtown from its former home in O'Connor Campus Center on the upper campus, the store is no longer an official stop on the admission tour. But Guilbault says the downtown location is a regular, if unofficial, must for prospective students and their parents getting a feel for Colgate. "Their questions range from, `Why should my daughter come to Colgate?' to `Where's the best place to get a sub?'" said Guilbault. "In many ways we're the face of Colgate downtown."

Alumnus Ed Vantine '56 and his family had been manufacturing fraternity composites in the two contiguous buildings that make up the Sperry Block in downtown Hamilton for as long as almost anyone could remember. In 2001, Vantine sold the Sperry Block and three other downtown buildings to the Colgate-owned Hamilton Initiative, and the family-owned business with 75 employees moved less than a mile north to a new state-of-the art facility in the Hamilton Airpark.

Downtown 'anchor'
Similar to the way that large department stores "anchor" the business at urban shopping malls, attracting a customer base that supports smaller stores, the Hamilton Initiative sought to create a retail anchor in downtown Hamilton.

The Hamilton Initiative is a tax-paying limited liability company that has restored several historic structures in the village over the past four years. The street-level storefronts of those buildings have attracted new businesses, including Maxwell's Chocolates, Cazenovia Jewelry, Healing From Within (massage therapy), Nichols & Beal Restaurant, and The Peppermill (specialty kitchen items).

Colgate officials speculated that the bookstore could bring more customers to the village -- customers who would also patronize the specialty shops. They began a detailed analysis of what the move might cost the university and what it might contribute to the business climate downtown. The Sperry Block, with its 22,000 square feet of connected space, presented an opportunity to relocate the bookstore into the heart of the village while expanding its available retail space more than threefold. Guilbault was named director of the bookstore as the plan was being hatched.

"There was some skepticism about the whole thing," she remembers, "but I never had any misgivings." While helping develop business models, she reached out to the community on campus and off. "I met with the student government; I gathered focus groups; I talked to the Lions Club -- I spoke about the plans for the bookstore with anyone who would listen. I think it helped."

Guilbault, an English literature major with degrees from Notre Dame and Binghamton University, had been the general book and music buyer for the Colgate Bookstore for five years before being named director. When the university committed to moving the bookstore downtown, she began in earnest the fieldwork and research that would lead to the bookstore's design. As demolition crews were hollowing out the remains of the Vantine manufacturing enterprise, Guilbault was visiting college and commercial bookstores, traveling to trade shows, and reading everything she could find about independent bookstores, retailing, and merchandising strategies.

QPK Architects of Syracuse was chosen to design the structure, and Ken White Associates consulted on the fixture selection and traffic flow. Guilbault and Hamilton Initiative President Roger Bauman were engaged throughout the design process. From the beginning of demolition to opening day took just 11 months. Midway through construction, while Guilbault stepped out to deliver her first baby, her associate director, Vicky Brondum, stepped in to manage construction and keep the project on its tight schedule.

Sidewalk chalk drawing was just one activity at the Colgate Bookstore's Customer Appreciation Day last August.

Central New York's largest independent bookstore
Two and a half years after moving to the new location, Guilbault says the bookstore's business plan is working. "I know the store is bringing students downtown. Through the Partnership for Community Development, we're working with other merchants to make the village a destination, drawing people from other communities to shop in Hamilton."

Special promotions, an expanded inventory, and the downtown location all contribute to increasing business, and even with its larger staff the

bookstore is returning a profit to the university. Whereas the textbook rush at the beginning of each semester represented the busy season at the on-campus location, the downtown store does a brisk business all year. Textbook rush and major weekends such as Commencement and Reunion are still the peak days, but Guilbault estimates that customers not affiliated with the university now account for a quarter of the bookstore's business.

Combined with the increase in traffic to the bookstore, the programming at community-wide events such as Streetfest, Cabin Fever Festival, and Hamilton for the Holidays draws students and townspeople who are potential customers for all of the retail businesses downtown. "We try to work with the other merchants," said Guilbault, who sometimes coordinates her buying plans with other stores in the village in an effort to keep direct competition with her neighbors at a minimum.

Her biggest competition comes from large book retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Border's Books, which have stores in nearby Syracuse and Utica. But Guilbault counters by stressing the independent nature of the Colgate enterprise. "We're not a cookie-cutter store," she said. "We're not restricted by what some New York City buyer dictates, and our customers appreciate that. Each of our departments does its own surveys. Our buyers actually read the books and select the clothing and gifts we sell, and our staff are always talking with our customers."

Mixed in among the sweatshirts and hats and other items emblazoned with the Colgate insignia that are on sale in the bookstore are specialty goods produced by local businesses and sold on consignment. And if a music lover can't find a desired title among the bookstore's 10,000 CDs and DVDs, it can be shipped in overnight.

Indeed, the bookstore has become a destination, and not only because of the merchandise. The events room on the third floor, funded with a donation from the Class of 2003, has been the site of more than 350 community events over the past two years -- ranging from formal dinners to children's workshops to yoga classes to author talks and book signings. "We even had a wake," said Guilbault. Her largest draw by far has been Andy Rooney '42, whose two book-signing visits have caused spikes in general book sales.

Lifelong Hamilton resident Vantine sees the bookstore as the center of a positive movement in Hamilton's downtown. "It's first-rate," he said. "Everything that Hamilton Initiative and Colgate have done downtown has turned out so well. The village is attracting new business and new people. This is a transformation."

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