BLACKSBURG — Rows of empty shelves stretched across the back wall of Tech Bookstore on a recent Wednesday.
The textbooks were cleared out in September, building owner Jerry Diffell said. Only the 50%-off racks of maroon and orange apparel and tables full of Hokie-themed gifts remain.
The store will stay open through Dec. 31 to clear as much stock as possible before the landmark upstart independent bookstore closes for good. Its operator, Follett Corporation, signed a contract earlier this year to oversee Virginia Tech’s two bookstores, and some of the stock will go there.
“I’m sad,” Diffell said. “It’s the death of an institution that has been a fixture downtown.”
Diffell opened the store in March 1986 for Nebraska Book Company, beginning its 33-year run in a small storefront attached to famed Blacksburg nightclub After Sundown. The club was known for bringing major musical acts to town; REM even played the venue in 1977.
And although it was small — about 1,500 square feet at the start — Tech Bookstore successfully competed with the university’s on-campus store.
In September 1986, The Roanoke Times & World News ran a story headlined: “Second bookstore shatters Tech’s book monopoly.” It featured a photo of a 35-year-old Diffell sitting cross-legged on a pile of books, a wide smile on his face.
And that kicked off a long-running rivalry with the university.
“They started discounting, so we had to match their discounting,” Diffell said.
Nebraska then leveraged its national used-book network to offer savings to students. Discounts of 25 % or more on textbooks weren’t uncommon. And it introduced a robust buyback program, offering cash for used books.
It wasn’t unusual during the last week of classes for the store to hand out $400,000 for used textbooks, Diffell said. When classes started back up, the store would take in nearly that much in sales per day on new and used books.
Over the years, the store developed a reputation for plucky marketing campaigns, including a series of TV commercials starring Diffell and his staff. Their pop culture send-ups of “The Jerry Springer Show” and the erectile dysfunction medication Viagra live on at YouTube.com.
The store also published Frank Beamer’s first autobiography, “Turn Up the Wick,” and it produced an exclusive line of Michael Vick-themed clothing. The future NFL quarterback even came to the store to sign autographs, Diffell said.
Eventually the once-little independent store grew into a 19,000-square-foot book and Hokie apparel retailer.
But the economics of textbooks and of retail brick-and-mortar stores became more challenging over the years, and the store began to struggle.
“The textbook business has changed dramatically in the last 10 years with all the online stuff. And, you know, kids just don’t want to spend $250 on a book anymore, either,” Diffell said.
Diffell has owned the building since 2001 and continued to manage the store for a string of companies. But by 2009 he said he had become frustrated with the lack of locally focused marketing. So Diffell retired.
Since then, he has been the store’s landlord. Follett Corporation, an Illinois-based academic book and services company took over the store in 2015. Follett operates 1,200 campus stores across the country and over 1,600 virtual stores, according to its marketing materials.
Then in March, Follett entered into an agreement to run Virginia Tech’s University Bookstore and the off-campus Volume Two bookstore in the University Mall, as well as a range of other retail and online student services.
Those entities are overseen not by the university itself, but by an affiliated nonprofit, Virginia Tech Services Inc., which was established in 1968 by Tech’s Board of Visitors. Because the university does not hold the Follett contract, its terms are confidential.
Follett Corporation did not respond to a message seeking comment .
Now Diffell is looking for a new tenant for his building. Since opening in 1962 as the town’s first Kroger grocery store, the location has been many things to many people, from mini-mall to dance hall to book stall.
Diffell said he’s eager to find out what it will become next.