Follett’s University Bookstore – an uptown Athens staple bookending the southwest corner of West Union and Court streets since 1952 – is closing, a development that’s raising concerns about the growing number of empty storefronts uptown.
Store Manager Celeste Polsinelli confirmed Wednesday that the Follett’s outlet has a tentative closing date of Nov. 22, though the official last day of business is still to be announced.
Asked why the store is closing, Polsinelli replied, “Due to declining demand over the past few years, we decided to close the store.”
While brick-and-mortar bookstores in the U.S. have seen a steady decline in business and many closings in recent years due to the increasing availability of books and e-books online, some college bookstores have been able to pivot toward online sales. The Follett Corporation owns roughly 1,200 physical stores and more than 1,550 online store outlets, according to a Febuary 2018 article in Publishers Weekly, and at least at the time of that article, was opening two to three stores per month.
Polsinelli said that no other Follett’s stores are closing. She said Follett’s store in Athens has 13 total employees. (Many Ohio University alums likely remember Logan’s University Bookstore occupying that same space before Follett's changed the name of its store.)
“Since our store opened in 1952, we have proudly served the Ohio University and Athens communities,” Polsinelli said. “Thank you for your support over the years, and we wish all the best to the university and the greater Athens community.”
Several businesses have closed or said they will be closing in uptown Athens since the beginning of this year, including Cornwell Jewelers, Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza, Franco’s Pizza, and Lady B’s Fried Chicken, although Lady B’s storefront already has been replaced by DP Dough. In addition, The Athens NEWS has moved its operations out of the Worstell Building, 14 N. Court Street, over the past several months.
Meanwhile, two bookstores are still present in uptown Athens, the College Bookstore on the northeast corner of South Court and West Union streets and Little Professor Book Center on South Court Street. Specialty Bookstore, on North Court Street in the 5onCourt Building, closed in 2012.
Josh Thomas, owner of Brenen’s Coffee Café on South Court Street, said Wednesday that it’s a “shame” Follett’s is closing. He’s a member of the Athens Uptown Business Association.
“Students now just buy e-books straight from the university and they kind of cut out the bookstores,” Thomas said.
Thomas said Follett’s closing will leave a “void” on that corner of South Court Street, and a large and potentially difficult-to-fill space for any potential new business or other occupant.
“From a town-gown perspective, I think we all have to start talking about how to co-exist and make things a little better so that we don’t have empty spaces on Court Street,” Thomas said. “They (empty spaces) are bad for everybody. In order to incentivize students coming to Athens or Ohio University and stay here, when they show up for a visit and see a bunch of empty spaces on Court Street, that’s not great.”
Thomas said he and other uptown business owners have real concerns about continued pressures on uptown businesses presented by two major factors: one is the recent decline in OU student enrollments, including an apparent downturn this fall semester as well, although the university has yet to provide enrollment statistics to The NEWS; the other concern, he said, is the cost of rent in uptown Athens.
Still, Thomas said that university enrollment declines are a nationwide and statewide problem that many college towns are grappling with. It will take a collaborative effort to address these problems among city and OU administrations and local businesses, he said.
Michelle Oestrike, president of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, echoed Thomas’ comments in a separate interview Wednesday.
“From my perspective, the university is trying to recruit students,” Oestrike said. “And with the lively uptown business atmosphere that they (OU) want to advertise, the first thing they (potential students) are going to see are several empty storefronts, so that’s concerning to me