Friday, October 16, 2009

The Brown University المكتبة

The Brown University المكتبة
by Lauren Neal and Sebastian Gallese

I. Brown, the Book, and Space.

Standing on the expansive, grey slab of concrete bordering the plot of land upon which sits the Brown Bookstore and Brown Office Building (one and the same? two disparate entities linked by nomenclature and/or the symbolic branding of "Brown-ness"?), we see and feel the imposing, looming presence of the Sciences Library in the not-so-far-away distance.

Interestingly enough, the Modern Standard Arabic word for 'bookstore' is the same of that for 'library' (المكتبة - or "al-mak-tah-bah"); the essence -- a place for books -- remains the same. Coincidentally enough, the Modern Standard Arabic word for office (المكتب - or "al-mak-tahb"), is directly related. This seems particularly interesting given the nature of the building that stands at 244 Thayer Street, Providence, RI. For it is this building, as well as its east-facing storefront, which emblematizes an intersection of theories well enmeshed in various economic and epistemological discourses. For it is here that one buys the necessary books for courses; here, students provide funds in exchange for the texts which promise to catalyze their intellectual growth. Similarly, the Bookstore's relationship to the Library suggests that not all knowledge will cost a direct transfer of physical, paper money. The library performs the notion of the 'free-exchange' of knowledge, though this idea is immediately shut down by another looming presence: that of the Brown Office Building (which houses, among many things, the Brown Bursar's Office -- where the authors themselves have paid many a bill), situated on top of the Brown Bookstore itself. The three form the players in a deep conversation about the true cost of education. Why are bookstores, libraries, and offices so intrinsically linked if they purport to represent varied ideological perspectives about access to information? Offices are self-contained, keeping information closed and only as it is necessary to the operations of the office and to the performance of 'official' functions. The bookstore provides knowledge, if one can afford to buy it; yet, the knowledge it has available is existentially in direct relationship to the type of information its patrons want to buy. The library, in final contrast, portends to supply free, open, and limitless knowledge of all subjects.

The stretch of sidewalk beyond the storefront also supports a number of additional inquiries. Why is there a camera on its Olive St. and Thayer St. corner? Why is a police car positioned here? What about the bookstore, supposedly privately owned, necessitates the presence of Brown Department of Public Safety officers? Why is this the only place on Thayer Street with such a consistent presence? Must the academic institution extend its limbs to protect the independent-owned, primarily economic institution because of the name emblazoned onto its storefront in the middle of public, community space?

High school students from Hope High School pass by us in droves. They do not enter the bookstore. Not even to use the restroom.

The sidewalk, notably wider and more spacious outside the Bookstore's façade than anywhere else on Thayer Street, supports a number of smaller businesses (a food stand, jewelers), artistic installations (community members and/or even the occasional Brown students playing instruments), peddlers (a bearded man with a cigarette asks for change), and advertisements for other Thayer Street businesses (sandwich boards make a case for Odessa-something-or-other jewelry, a smoke shop, even the café inside the Bookstore -- a reiteration of Blue State Coffee just north). In addition to spatially hosting a meeting of instantiations of many apparatuses of power, the stretch of sidewalk has also a strange temporality. It was here that one of the authors purchased a Brown t-shirt on her first visit to the campus, a token of hope and a tactile representation of the goal to 'be accepted,' essentially to be accepted into the basement area of the bookstore to 'officially' buy books for 'official' university classes. Now the authors occasionally use the bookstore and/or bookstore café as a sort of library space: for study of those same books purchased in the store on the bill that is to be paid up-upstairs to the Bursar who sits behind a glass window and requests one's checks through a slit in it.

II. The Glass

These windows, thin pieces of glass that run up and down the sidewalk to separate Thayer from the Brown Shop, are surprisingly clear. With most bookstores, we are used to seeing the window display, the usual clutter behind of books and posters andknick knacks behind glass; items set out to entice the window shopper into the store, out of the cold and into the warmth, to touch the books they can see but cannot access from the street.

Tova, the director of the window displays, says we can freely advertise a current event on campus- all we need to do is pay enough money to print out a poster and tell the bookstore which books they sellcoincide with the visiting author, artist, or conference. Anybody, theoretically, can put on a Thayer facing show as long as they place book advertisements. But there are no window displays, not one.

Instead, every window, three large frames of eight feet by eight feet of glass on the northern side of the Book Shop main entrance and two on the southern side, are clear as air. From the street we can see the girl drinking her Blue State coffee, the dude typing away at hisnetbook , the old lady reading. From the inside we watch the hot dog salesman making a buck, the change beggar making nothing, the constant sweeping of university/high school students, and the endless vector of cars,RIPTA buses, and bicycles moving south on the one-way street.

And my mind starts to wander....

What imagined community is founded on the print-capitalism of the Book Shop? Are all the students here- reading the same books but different books- one in the same but slightly different? Does it matter that the old Providence folk that live on College Hill stop by to read the pop lit New York Times bestseller that is advertised next to the book of the most politically charged radical scholar on campus? Is this an indifference of difference... just as long as there is abar code and price tag? This Brown University seal that adorns every piece of fabric, every bag, every merchandisable object- the stamp of the commodity- the "you CAN put a price on the brand of your education," who is this for? The hope high kids on the outside sure don't care to wear Brown sweatshirts, why is everybody through the window of the Brown Shop "united" around this empty mantra of an educational institution? And does it matter that just any group on campus can ask for a display, to notify the Brown community at large of an event that their university is sponsoring, that we can all attend, yet the university doesn't organize the display space directly?

Then, if we have this divider, this clear clear glass wall to separate cash, how does the Book Shop create capital and where does it flow? The technology assistant working upstairs to sell Macs has put in 20 years of her life at this store, she depends on it to support her family, and I pump in at least 200 dollars into the store every semester, and the shop payed for a two story renovation last year, and the old man buys postcards of Barack Obama, Ruth Simmons, and old pictures of College Hill. Does all of this capital leave the store, go back to "Brown", circle back in the form of a tax-free transfer, adinfinitum ? When we queue up to perform our purchase, to say "Yes, this is my valid signature and I do have x money somewhere in the world atsome point in time", what are we supporting? Are we being loyal to Brown by spending our bear bucks at the Brown Shop vs.

Let us return to, and end with, with our original image of clear, empty windows. These are not just 2-D dead space, a third dimension of emptiness is added when the two feet of wood counter extends from the window to the patrons' seats on the inside. The security guard watches us by the cash register, with a smile on his face, and nothing interesting happens. We can hear the sound of customers buzzing about, the clings of cash registers, the hum of the heater, but all the clients by the window just sit there, in chairs, waiting, the banality of it all. What happened to Learning fromLas Vegas, where are the streamers, the banners, the books for sale to distract us by the window and shield the outside and inside world? Instead, we face a new architecture, a long, clear, bright window that shines in on the goods and peoples of the store, a separator that combines with itssurroundings, a merging of Brown University/Thayer St. commerce and book smarts/street smarts, and all we do is look in, look out, or look around, unsure of where things go and come from. What does this Book Shop sell?

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