Best of Scene

Garfield Book Company at PLU forges new ties with Parkland community

By Megan Haley, Photos By Jordan Hartman '02
At the beginning of any school year, staffers at PLU’s bookstore log long hours unpacking boxes, stocking shelves and preparing for the crush of students eager to purchase textbooks for the upcoming semester. On a drizzly late-July evening – the day the sparkling new facility opened in its new location – this was certainly true. But textbooks and school supplies were not on anyone’s list. Those in line included a handful of high schoolers and their parents, waiting to purchase a copy of the seventh and final book in the popular Harry Potter series.

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A pack of gum-popping high schoolers isn’t something one expects to find in a college bookstore. In the case of the newly opened Garfield Book Company at PLU, however, this scene is one they anticipate to see more often. The bookstore moved off campus to anchor a new retail complex located at the corner of Garfield Street and Pacific Avenue. It is part of a novel strategy to strengthen the relationship between the surrounding Parkland community, local high schools and PLU.

The 32,000-square-foot, $8-million commercial development, known as Garfield Commons, provides an inviting entrance to the university. Moreover, the complex is part of an ambitious plan to reinvigorate the local business district.

“Historically, businesses on Garfield Street have struggled,” said Mark Mulder ’93, director of auxillary services. “In recent years though, the number of thriving businesses has improved steadily.”

Garfield Commons will increase pedestrian traffic between campus, the bookstore and Garfield Street merchants. It will also provide opportunities for further economic development – along with the bookstore, a gourmet pizza restaurant, specialty coffee shop, tanning salon and smoothie establishment are also open for business.

For its part, the Garfield Book Company at PLU targets more than the campus community. “By and large, campus bookstores are sheltered from the real world,” said Kristi Dopp, director of Garfield Book Company. “But we’re not just serving PLU; we’re serving the greater community and the school districts.”

In addition to items typically carried by a college bookstore – textbooks, PLU memorabilia, school supplies – the 15,000-square-foot, two-story store carries products for the greater Tacoma community, the Franklin-Pierce and Bethel school districts, and home-schooled children. It’s a unique combined college and independent community bookstore based on a model Mulder calls “community-embraced.”

‘Something had to change’

PLU had been eyeing the corner lots at Garfield and Pacific Avenue for more than a decade, said Sheri Tonn, vice president for finance and operations. In the past, Piggly Wiggly, O’Neil’s grocery store, and most recently, a thrift store, were located on the site. With each business venture, the corner continued to deteriorate and become more of an eyesore.

To make matters worse, that corner served as the gateway to PLU.

“Everyone agreed that the corner was not very attractive and something had to change,” said President Loren Anderson.

Something did change. The university used endowment funds to purchase the property and an adjacent vacant lot for redevelopment. PLU partnered with Lorig Associates LLC to co-develop the property.

Pierce County Councilwoman Barbara Gelman ’74 saw the corner as an opportunity to partner with PLU to enhance Garfield Street. For more than 20 years, Gelman has been a fierce advocate for a pedestrian friendly Garfield Street and Pacific Avenue.

“With the purchase of the property where Garfield Commons sits, Garfield Street essentially became the connection between PLU and the new development,” Gelman said. “It’s almost as if (PLU) wrapped its arms around Garfield Street.”
Prior to the Garfield Commons project, Gelman’s focus was on Pacific Avenue and its $13 million streetscape improvement plan. Pierce County originally planned to construct sidewalks along a five-mile stretch of the road, but Gelman wanted more.

“They were just putting in sidewalks,” Gelman said. “The plan didn’t include curbs and gutters or amenities like pedestrian lighting or trees.”

She successfully halted the project and had it redesigned. Gelman also secured a $5 million grant from the Transportation Investment Board, which provided curbs and gutters along the entire five-mile stretch and added amenities at five major intersections.

When PLU announced the development of Garfield Commons, Gelman embraced the project, seeing it as a chance to improve the streetscape of Garfield, she said. The plans also fit with Pierce County’s interest in encouraging redevelopment and improvements in the area.

While the Parkland-Spanaway-Midland community plan set the framework, the 2006 “Garfield Streetscape Improvement Plan” specifically targeted the Garfield Business District. The collaborative effort strives to improve the pedestrian experience on Garfield Street by providing an environment for people to walk, shop and dine.

“When you come past the Commons buildings, you’ll look down Garfield and you’ll say, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ Just like a college town,” she explained.

PLU and Lorig incorporated the first phase of the streetscape plan in the Garfield Commons development. Along with wider sidewalks, benches, trees and improved lighting, the development includes bike racks and outdoor plaza gathering spaces. The buildings themselves vary in height and shape. Canopies and a variety of building materials create an inviting “urban village” feel.

“We now have a complete new look on the corner and we expect that this will be a very good investment for the community and the university,” Anderson said.

Connecting to the community

In the past, the idea to move the bookstore off campus had been discussed in order to free up space in the University Center, Tonn explained. So with the purchase of the land, Mulder took a sabbatical to examine the idea’s viability.

He found PLU wasn’t the first to consider relocating its bookstore off campus. In fact, the trend began several years ago as colleges and universities nationwide began looking for ways to branch out into the community, said Tony Ellis, director of education for the National Association of College Stores.

“A long standing goal of colleges and universities is to balance the campus community as well as benefiting the towns that host them, a situation that’s historically been referred to as ‘town and gown,’” Ellis explained.

“The bookstore is a logical part of the campus community to branch out. It can meet the needs and interests of many
audiences.”

A number of pioneering schools had successfully moved into their communities.

Located a mile from downtown Hamilton, N.Y., Colgate University decided to relocate its bookstore into the heart of the town center and sparked a renaissance of the area. In Washington, D.C., Howard University moved its bookstore and campus security office into the surrounding deteriorating neighborhood, successfully providing an anchor to the area.

“We had a few successful models to look at, so we could see that this project had good potential,” Tonn said. “We knew we had a real opportunity here, and we didn’t want to miss it.’”

Placing the bookstore off campus also provided a unique opportunity for PLU to interact with the community.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve had an adversarial relationship with the community in the past, but we hadn’t necessarily reached out to the community in a really strategic way,” Tonn said.

The university’s first intentional step into the community began in the mid-1980s with the formation of East Campus, a collection of social service organizations and community programs for low-income families. Then the School of Business reached out to Garfield Street businesses, pairing merchants with student groups to strengthen their business operations.
The bookstore seemed the next logical step. The “community-embraced” concept encourages increased interaction between students and the community, Mulder said.

Mulder has already forged partnerships with the local school districts and home-schooling community. The store will carry apparel for the local high schools and innovative teaching and learning resources for students and parents based on curriculum used in surrounding school districts. It’s a feature that isn’t found in other university bookstores, Tonn said.
“We’re hoping to be seen as a leader in the community with regard to education and educational materials,” Tonn explained.

“It really allows us to showcase our faculty, our research, our student projects. We feel we have a lot to offer the surrounding community.”

The rooms and layout of the store add to its community appeal. The interior mixes industrial materials, such as brick and cement, with comfy seating and cozy nooks.

The store features a large general book section, placing academic titles alongside popular favorites; a children’s learning nook; apparel and school supplies; and fair trade global products and Pacific Northwest gifts.

The Fireside Lounge has casual seating, a fireplace, a stage and a kitchen for cooking demonstrations. Upstairs, The Perch features views of the entire store and, on a clear day, of Mount Rainier.

The Community Room hosts large community events, including the Writers Story for the English department’s Visiting Writer Series, seminars and luncheons as well. Even yoga. At the beginning of each semester, it is used for textbook overflow.
The room features space for catering and, Dopp said, the store is currently working to partner with Garfield Street restaurants to offer catering services in the space. It’s one more way the bookstore is helping bolster the local business district.

“This development will help the community feel like they’re being served,” Dopp said.