In its 120th year, University Book Store remains essential

University Book Store 1970s era

The University Book Store on the Ave in the 1970s.

As the novel coronavirus spread through King County and employees across the University of Washington were sent home, University Book Store CEO Louise Little was in her office on the Ave, just like any other day. Along with 40 of her colleagues, Little, ’81, was considered an essential employee by the state, and that designation is hard to dispute: While thousands of students were missing from campus, they still needed books for spring quarter.

Instead of waiting in a winding line at the bottom floor of the book store, students now obtain their textbooks by mail. For an independent bookseller built on in-person business, that took some getting used to. “We have to process, pick, pack and ship every order,” says Little, and it’s a big deal for a small staff. But the book store adapted on the fly, keeping a CDC-sanctioned distance between themselves and wiping down surfaces as they worked. It’s been good practice for summer quarter, which will also be online.

It’s quite a way to mark the book store’s 120th anniversary. Opened by two students in 1900, operating out of a coat closet next to the President’s Office in Denny Hall, the shop relocated to the basement in 1908. But by 1924, the fire marshal kicked the organization off campus, flagging its setup as unsafe, and the book store moved into an old billiards hall on the Ave. “Sometimes I don’t know where the University Book Store ends and the University begins,” says Little. “We are part of the fabric of the campus culture. Everyone has a book store memory.”

Let’s take a quick trip through the book store’s 120 years:

1900: An early book store flier declares: “As this is purely a co-operative concern, run by students for their own benefit, it expects the support of all loyal students.” The student population: 514.

1917: The book store makes more than $50,000 in sales for the first time, with a profit of nearly $5,000. This data was kept public and promoted in advertisements at the time.

1922: Longtime book store manager Percy Dearle resigns in order to start his own shop, “Dearle’s Student Supply,” on the Ave. He often slashes prices to undercut his old employer, allegedly once claiming that “he would live on the beach and eat clams to undersell the book store.”

1932: It looks like ASUW will default on bonds that it issued to build Hec Ed, so the book store incorporates and takes out loans. That saves ASUW’s skin, and saves the book store from potentially being sold off by the cash-strapped ASUW.

1941: The world is at war, but Duke Ellington stops by the book store and plays a baby grand piano. Life on the Ave is beautiful—at least for a song or two.

1958: The book store ranks second only to the Harvard Book Store in sales.

1964: President Charles Odegaard reorganizes campus and many of its departments, and the book store lands a new status: a for-profit organization that isn’t part of the University. That remains so today, but the board of directors features students, faculty and staff.

1970: The Vietnam War continues to loom over life in America, and the UW student body grows to more than 33,000—nearly double that of the previous decade. (The median age of a U.S. soldier killed in the war is 20.) As new students arrive, the book store more than doubles its volume, now up to $5.4 million.

1987: The book store opens a Bellevue branch, bringing 60,000 titles and an intimate UW connection to the Eastside. The store closed 30 years later, in 2017, due to the changing retail landscape.

1992: UW pounds Michigan to win the Rose Bowl. Husky gear becomes even more in style, representing 10% of all store sales.

2009: Former President Jimmy Carter returns to the book store for his fourth visit (he would have a fifth in 2019). The book store has also welcomed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

2013: Louise Little, ’81, who started at the book store as a temporary cashier in the 1970s, becomes the store’s first female CEO.

2020: As much of the University shuts down due to coronavirus, the book store is deemed an essential service and continues to spread knowledge and joy to students across the UW.