The recent announcement that Moravian College would be buying the historic Moravian Book Shop, the nation’s and perhaps the world’s oldest continuously operating bookstore, from the Moravian Church Northern Province has been met with mixed reactions in the community.
Many of the fears about the sale are unfounded, and I join the college and the church in saying this is very good news not only for Bethlehem’s Main Street but also for the Moravian Book Shop.
Based on conversations with the book shop’s current leadership, as well as with college officials, the sale was necessary to ensure the store’s survival in what has become a very tough retail environment in Bethlehem’s downtown and the Lehigh Valley.
PART OF THE CITY’S FABRIC
The Moravian Book Shop is not just another business on Main Street.
It is a cultural and historic asset of this community that has been in Bethlehem since 1745. And while the store has been struggling lately to be competitive, it has never forgotten the important role it has played as both an anchor business in the downtown and as a part of the city’s historic fabric as another significant Moravian Church-related institution.
We believe that, more than any other institution in the city, Moravian College understands just how important the Moravian Book Shop is to the community.
For the college, it is more than just a bookstore, too.
A RIGHTEOUS MOVE
We are very appreciative of the Moravian Church Northern Province’s stewardship and ownership of the Moravian Book Shop and we understand why they made the decision, albeit a difficult one, to transfer ownership to Moravian College.
But the transfer couldn’t have been any more fateful or positive.
More importantly, the college will be operating the bookstore both as its college bookstore and maintaining it as a community bookstore, as well.
The campus bookstore is no longer the place you go to buy your textbooks once a semester. It is part of the changing landscape of what colleges and universities offer their students.
We believe the Moravian Book Shop, as envisioned by Moravian College and its operational advisers, Barnes & Noble College bookstores and Sodexo food service, can become more than just a college bookstore.
It can become a Main Street town square where students, faculty, visitors and most importantly local members of the community can have lunch, meet friends for coffee or perhaps a glass of wine and – oh, yes – buy a book.
This sale is a win-win for everyone, but most of all it is a win for this cultural icon that has been a part of Bethlehem for almost as long as there as been a Bethlehem.
CAMPUS BOOKSTORE 2.0
Let’s call the Moravian Book Shop one of the next generation of campus bookstores, stores no longer on campus but in the community and remade, as colleges have remade their recreational and gym facilities and dining facilities.
While Moravian College has many campus hubs of activity, this will be the first in the community.
And considering that Moravian College’s campus starts at the south end of Main Street and continues on for more than a mile to the north end of Main Street, the Moravian Book Shop holds a strategic significance for the college.
It will provide not only campus connections but also campus cohesiveness and identity.
OTHER BOOKSTORE COLLABORATIONS
Moravian College has said that is drawing inspiration from the College of William & Mary and its bookstore that is in historic Colonial Williamsburg.
That’s a great example of a historic store in a historic community. But there also are many other Barnes & Noble-operated college bookstores that are very successful examples of the next generation of campus and community bookstores.
The University of Pennsylvania’s new bookstore was built in a new retail complex that also houses a coffee and sandwich shop, several new restaurants, a hotel and other retail development.
Other successful stores, managed by Barnes & Noble for their institutions, include Penn State, Yale and Harvard universities, and the list could go on.
The most important thing is the Moravian Book Shop and its unique brand of retail – centered around history and culture – will remain an important part of Bethlehem.
Kudos to Moravian Church and the Moravian Book Shop board for having been exceptional stewards for this inimitable and singular cultural asset.
I am convinced that Moravian College – thank you President Bryon Grigsby and your board – will not only maintain that level of stewardship, but will enhance it and take it to the next level.
While ownership may change, the commitment to the store’s history, core values and cultural status will stay the same and grow.
Robert J. Donchez is the mayor of Bethlehem.