Fifty-three years ago, a secret group on this campus took matters into their own hands. They decided it was time for a change. This group worked their connections, pushed their agenda and got exactly what they wanted-something better, more independent, maybe even slightly subversive. What was this secret society's plan? Bringing something to campus that would last for all eternity. Not a monument to commemorate their own brotherhood, but a temple of knowledge for all students. This group conjured up the Gothic Bookshop.
The Gothic Bookshop spent the next couple of decades where the current Career Center is located in the Flowers Building. When the Bryan Center opened, in went the Gothic. Here, the store prospered. Just last year, at the peak of its influence, the bookshop's large windows looked right out onto the Plaza.
But alas, the Gothic's golden age seems to have passed. The once cozy study area within the store is now gone. The sun's rays no longer enter the front of the bookshop through those large window panes level with the Plaza. Onlookers cannot see into the store from the Plaza either. A coffee shop, Joe Van Gogh, took the space instead, shrinking the bookshop.
But talk to some people and you will think that the Gothic is still upon its finest hour. Kathy World-Operations Manager for the Gothic Bookshop and a Trinity '72 graduate who had worked in the bookshop after graduation for 15 years before returning two years ago-told me about the current state of the Gothic. In her view, the greatest competition to her shop comes from massive cyber-bookstores, like Amazon.com. She stressed that the Gothic could order books for students, offers friendly customer service and, perhaps best of all, provides discounts on most book purchases.
When asked about the arrival of Joe Van Gogh, World assured me that the new cafe "certainly hasn't hurt [business]" and that it has brought in some people who may never have stopped by otherwise. Renovation of the Gothic Bookshop has been necessary to make up for the lost space, but World seemed perpetually positive in our talk-"I don't think we are being slighted," she said. The Gothic's logo, she added, is still up on one of Joe's windows.
But this sticker is a remnant of days past, when the windows were the Gothic's, not Joe's. Ironically, my interview with World took place in Joe-there was no space in the Gothic.
Reynolds Price, a renowned English professor here at Duke, has his opinions on the Gothic Bookshop's future as a devoted patron and an initial planner. Price was a member of the Old Trinity Club during his senior year at Duke in 1955. It was this secretive group that breathed life into the Gothic Bookshop. Teaching at Duke since 1958, Price feels as adamantly about the bookshop now as he did more than 50 years ago. He sees the Gothic as a "huge contribution to the always-threatened civilization of [Duke]." According to Price, there have been several attempts by the administration to "get rid of the Gothic" or to downsize it.
The Chronicle reported on the most publicized attempt to lease out the Duke bookstore in the late '90s. Duke was pondering leasing out the service to Barnes and Noble or to efollett.com, a network connecting hundreds of college campus bookstores. The Gothic Bookshop survived these public bids only to be the subject of a Duke Student Government referendum in 2000. The referendum showed significant student support for a privatized bookstore, although the voting process was admittedly run poorly. The Gothic survived this attack too.
Nancy Metzloff, executive assistant to the executive vice president, explained that Joe took the Gothic's space because of a lack of other options. Vice President of Campus Services Kemel Dawkins concurred, saying the goal of adding Joe was to make the Plaza livelier. Both maintained that the Gothic Bookshop is here to stay. Dawkins did mention that food vendors were under constant review, but that Duke always tries to balance profitability and sentimentality. Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst, perhaps the most student-oriented official involved with campus venues, said he did not play a role in the placement of Joe. Dawkins pointed out that bookshops often include cafes within their stores. But the Gothic had a small lounge offering free coffee beforehand. Moreover, Joe is wholly separated from the bookstore, aside from a solitary doorway, and it places no books in its windows.
Today, it seems that a new threat is squeezing in on the Gothic. It isn't coming in the form of a vote or as a hot-button issue. Instead, the bookstore is slowly being eaten away. A venue that students at one point fought for was attacked by the same university's student body in a referendum 40 years later. Now, 50 years after its beginnings, the Gothic Bookshop seems to be going out the same way it came in-in secret.
Elad Gross is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday.
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