Debbie Harvie is profoundly experienced in bookstore management. Having directed the UBC Bookstore for over 25 years, she has had a measurable impact on the student experience at UBC. In 2008, she became the managing director of University Community Services and since then, has overseen a diverse portfolio servicing the community.
Although she also directs Campus Security and parking and access services, the bookstore remains the focus of Harvie’s role.
“Of course I have to look after all the units in my portfolio, but I think the bookstore is still the largest. It’s also probably the key function in connectivity with students — obviously supplying academic materials influences how students do in their courses and it ties us very closely to the faculty,” she said.
Initially, Harvie aspired to be a grade school teacher, but when she graduated from the University of Alberta in 1979, the job market for teaching jobs was incredibly depressed. This motivated Harvie to enter the book industry, becoming a manager for Classic Bookshops at just 23 years old. She then entered collegiate retail as the SFU Bookstore manager in 1985 and moved to UBC in 1990, becoming the UBC Bookstore director.
During Harvie’s tenure, the Bookstore has experienced many significant changes. For one, books have become much less popular. She explained that pressure from competitors such as Chapters, Amazon and eBook readers, forced collegiate retail to adapt to a more competitive marketplace.
“When I started in the book industry … trade books would do incredibly well — when a bestseller would come out in paperback or hardcover, you’d sell hundreds of them and the stores were thriving. The [UBC Bookstore], when I came here, sold over $4 million worth of general books [in one year]. Today, we sell about $900,000,” she said.
Collegiate stores are also responsible for providing course materials to students. When compared to trade books, Harvey says that this sector of the bookstore’s commerce has changed even more dramatically.
“[In the 1980s and 1990s], lots of books were selling — for a class of a hundred, we’d sell 99 books because books were really used in a different way in courses. There were less choices, there wasn’t the internet, so students just used their learning materials very efficiently and effectively, I think.”
Since then, much has changed, Harvie explained.
“Students have a lot more choices. Sometimes, students choose not to buy anything at all, and that’s fair. We’re very supportive of open educational materials and if that’s the right thing for the class, we want to support that.”
According to Harvie, these changes have skyrocketed the difficulty of the book buying process. Once a faculty member chooses the course materials, the bookstore’s buyers have to estimate the demand from students, making predictions based off past records and the textbook’s status as either recommended or required.
“The challenge in this marketplace is we at the bookstore don’t choose the textbook — the faculty member does,” said Harvie. “If a faculty member goes to the class and says, ‘You don’t actually need that book,’ now we’re the bad guy because we brought them in and the student doesn’t need it. All we want is that a faculty member chooses a great book, the student uses that in the class and gets value out of it. Then we all win.”
Despite the bookstore’s core identity as a book retailer, books make up less than half of its sales. Harvie does not view this as a negative, but rather as a sign of the bookstore’s growing role as an economic hub on the UBC campus.
“We’re not only a bookstore. And I don’t mean that to be a diminutive, but we are more than a bookstore — we have a lot of other products. Some people, if they don’t come in to buy a book, may never think that we have pens and pencils, or other things.”
For example, the bookstore is one of the few places where students, faculty, staff and visitors can purchase UBC branded clothing. Harvie believes that UBC clothing shouldn't be a uniform, and this directorial philosophy impacts the products for sale at the bookstore.
“UBC’s clothing is blue and gold, but quite honestly, it’s not the most popular colour that we sell. I’ve been to [Harvard’s] bookstore — you walk in and everything is burgundy and grey or white. But as a customer, that’s not what I want — I would like some choice,” she said.
Harvie speaks from experience — decreasing chromatic variation has depressed sales in the past. “A couple of years ago, the athletics department wanted us to have all blue and gold clothing, and our sales plummeted. Especially the young women on campus, they wanted us to have more fashion pieces, so when we were able to bring those back, sales rose up again.”
For the remainder of her career, Harvie wants to continue serving UBC. She said, “I’ve been very fortunate to be in this industry. I don’t know if this is the peak of my career, but I’m always looking for new opportunities on campus to take on projects and see if I can help make UBC a better place for students. As long as I’m adding to that, I’m quite happy.”