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September 29, 1994

Book Centers' Bonach oversaw transformation of book sales at Pitt

Mary Bonach, who retired as director of the University Book Centers on Aug. 31, but has remained on duty in a consulting role that ends this week, clearly recalls the day in 1960 when The Book Center opened at its current location along Fifth Avenue.

She recalls the date vividly because the opening was such a big affair. At the time, The Book Center was the largest college bookstore east of the Mississippi River. Even legendary Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence made an appearance at the opening. The only thing missing were the books. "It was really very scary," she remembers. Prior to The Book Center's opening at its current location, it was housed on the ground floor of the Cathedral of Learning. Except for a couple of racks of paperbacks, it handled only textbooks that were sold over a counter. Students would come to the store with a list of books they needed for class and give it to a clerk who would then retrieve the books from a storage area.

The tiny size of the store and its limited selection meant there was very little to move to the new location. The store's staff had ordered plenty of books in time for the planned opening on Aug. 15, 1960. But then the contractor did something almost unheard of and finished the work five months ahead of schedule. The opening was changed to March 15, 1960, four months before the new books were scheduled to arrive.

Bonach and the store's other staff members somehow managed to spread out the few books they had so that it at least looked as if there was something on the shelves. She says now of the move: "It was like going from the Stone Age to the Atomic Age. There was no in-between." While there may not have been any "in-between" in the move of The Book Center, Bonach, during the past 34 years she has worked at the store, has seen all of the big and little changes, and everything in between that the book business has undergone. For the past 10 years, that includes books on tape, which she says are great for runners and long distance drives, computers and "electronic books" that are supposed to take over the business, something that Bonach does not believe will ever happen.

"I can't imagine anyone going to the beach with a computer to read," she says. "Nothing replaces a good book to curl up with and as long they keep books interesting and people can afford to buy them I think books are going to be around." Neither does Bonach feel that The Book Center will lose business to the so-called "super bookstores" like Borders and Barnes & Noble. She points out that The Book Center has a solid academic audience and an extensive back list of titles that in many cases can be found nowhere else.

Then, too, the store stocks over 100,000 titles, which compares very favorably with the number of titles stocked by the super bookstores. In addition, it has a very loyal audience made up of many former Pitt students, faculty and staff. "It's always a real joy when students come back or faculty come back and say this is still the best bookstore," she notes.

Bonach began her career at the University on Sept. 1, 1947 as a member of the Bursar's office, now the Comptroller's office. It was the height of the postwar boom and Pitt was swelled by former servicemen taking advantage of the GI Bill. There were so many students coming into Pitt at the time that registration was held in the Syria Mosque, where Bonach worked collecting tuition and registering students.

In 1960, Bonach went from the Bursar's office to the bookstore to help set up an accounting system, and she never left. Over the next 10 years, she worked at practically every job associated with the bookstore. Then, in 1970, she was named director of the University Book Centers, a job that includes oversight of The Book Center on Fifth Avenue, the Health Center Bookstore and The Pitt Stop, both on Forbes Avenue, and the stadium shop located in Pitt Stadium.

During her years at Pitt, Bonach says, The Book Center has been fortunate because the three chancellors she has served under — Edward Litchfield, Wesley Posvar and J. Dennis O'Connor — have all been book lovers. Litchfield in particular took a special interest in The Book Center. Bonach says that when he became chancellor he could not believe that a university the size of Pitt was being served by the "pathetic little bookstore" then in operation on the ground floor of the Cathedral of Learning. He viewed the bookstore as being as important to the University as the library and promised to change the situation.

Today, The Book Center is no longer the largest college bookstore east of the Mississippi, but it remains somewhat unusual because of the volume of business it does in books. Only about 14 percent of the center's business is in T-shirts, supplies and gift items. The other 86 percent is in books, about 48 percent of that textbooks and the rest mass market books, such as novels, biographies, travel guides and art books.

"The bookstore has to pay for itself," Bonach adds. "Not one penny of tuition money is put into the bookstore. It has to pay all its own expenses, including rent and taxes." According to Bonach, when The Book Center first opened at its current location, Litchfield forbid it even to sell a mug or T-shirt. It was not until 1972, following repeated requests from students who were having a difficult time finding items bearing the Pitt logo, that a small collection of clothing and other gift items was added to the inventory.

Since moving to Fifth Avenue, though, The Book Center has carried a wide variety of books beyond the texts needed for classes. Again, it was Litchfield who insisted on having a large selection. "He wanted to have the best general book department in the United States," says Bonach. "He felt with the graduate schools and the number of students on campus a good general book department was needed. He thought books were very important to students, and not only textbooks." The Book Center built its selection based on suggestions from department heads and faculty members, and through the efforts of buyers who were willing to go out and track down good books, according to Bonach.

Offering a large selection of titles, however, does have a price. Space restrictions required The Book Center in the mid 1980s to move the monthly book reviews and lectures it used to sponsor in the fine arts room to Hillman Library. The longing tone in Bonach's voice makes it clear that the reviews and lectures are something she has missed in recent years.

One thing that Bonach cannot ever imagine changing or removing, though, is the couch that stands in the corner of the fine arts room. "That is important," she says. "You see two or three people there all of the time. Every once in a while one of the buyers will ask about getting rid of the couch. The answer is always no because it allows people to look." Among the technological changes in the business that Bonach is clearly happy about are the scanners in operation at the check-outs. Prior to their installation several years ago the opening week of classes always resulted in lines of students snaking through the bookstore and jamming all movement. Before the scanners, it could take five minutes or more to check out a single customer, sometimes much more when checks or credit cards were involved. With the scanners, a single clerk now can check out as many as 40 students an hour, which has shortened the lines and brought welcome relief to everyone concerned.

Among the other changes that please Bonach are the scholarship fund the University Book Centers endowed in the mid 1980s, and the establishment, in conjunction with Hillman Library, last year of a computer link to the reference series "Books in Print." Pitt was one of the first universities in the country to electronically link up with "Books in Print." Bonach says it has been a great cost saver since the University no longer has to purchase hard copies of the series. It also has made the series much more timely, since it is updated electronically every month.

About her retirement plans, Bonach says she wants to do more volunteer work and travel. Then she laughs and adds, " But first I want to clean my house." She'll also make a point of attending Pitt football games. Since she began work at the University in 1947, she has only missed five home football games.

Bonach's love of Pitt football has helped the University in a big way, too. While attending the 1978 Sugar Bowl, she noticed vendors at the game "making all kind of money" from the sale of T-shirts and other items bearing the Pitt logo. When she returned to Pittsburgh, she began a campaign to license Pitt logos and marks.

"I just thought that it was very important that University monitor its logos and marks," she says. "The University has the right to control what its name is on." Rosemarie Slezak, who has served as manager of the Health Center Bookstore for the past 12 years, has been named to succeed Bonach as director of the University Book Centers.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 3

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