Bookstore Blues

Fred Miller
Kaimin Reporter

On the first day of classes, Angie Nygaard, a senior in pharmacy, joined scores of students in a mad rush to buy textbooks at The Bookstore at the University of Montana. Nygaard stood laden with a heavy basket of high-priced books, midway through the long line to the check-out counter, surrounded by many other students who were doubtlessly wanting alternatives. Nygaard said she thinks there are, but she isn’t eager to look into it. “I think it is really expensive here, and it probably would be cheaper to do it online,” she said. “And, yes, there are long lines here, but I just feel like with work and school starting, I just don’t really have the time to check it out online.” Some book buyers think bargains are available on the Internet, but there are disadvantages to online buying as well, and The Bookstore more than holds it’s own, said Bryan Thornton, the manager of The Bookstore. Many students don’t bother to do price comparisons. Many find long lines preferable to the costs of shipping and the hassle of waiting for books they might need quickly. “There’s a big value to the convenience of having (books) all in one spot,” Thornton said. And a price comparison of certain books among The Bookstore and major online companies shows The Bookstore is cheaper in most cases. A new copy of the “Quill Reader” sold to students in ENEX 101, a course required for most UM students sells for $46.95 at The Bookstore. Barnes and Noble has it for the same price, varsitybooks.com has it for $51.99, and ecampus.com has it cheaper, at $46.55. But none of those prices include postage costs. Thornton said The Bookstore is better able to keep book prices down than some other college bookstores because it is a nonprofit store with students and faculty as the shareholders. The store keeps its margins, the percentage of difference between the price paid for a books and their sale price, down to about 30 percent, compared with the national average of about 55 percent in 2001 and 2002. A few years ago, at the peak of the dot-com start-up era, The Bookstore had more competition from online retailers, Thornton said. In response, he and other store administrators began looking for ways to keep prices down. They have been fairly successful, he said, despite publishers’ efforts to keep them up. Publishers often release new editions of texts to sell more books, he said. “It’s a vicious cycle because in order to pay for the production of that book they sell it for a higher price,” he said. “We are cheaper than the average, but that’s a hard thing to convince people of because college textbooks are expensive. You can’t pick up a $100 book and say “Gee, isn’t this a deal?” When the dot-com industry crashed a few years ago, lower-priced retailers went with it, said Jakki Mohr, a professor of marketing with the School of Business Administration. Many dot-com businesses were skilled marketers, she said, but they skimped on service, and they lost repeat customers as a result. The companies that remained thriving, like Barnes and Noble, charged higher prices, but they carefully invested in the overhead required to package and ship their products, she said. It is still possible to find cheap books online. A copy of the “Quill Reader” can be found at half.com, a non-bidding affiliate of e-Bay that allows sellers to be in direct contact with buyers, for less than $10. Although half.com has a protection policy that allows buyers to dispute sales if they receive merchandise in bad condition, Mohr said buyers still have no absolute guarantee of quality. “Trust is the biggest issue,” she said. Some administrators at The Bookstore and professors have found a way to cut down on prices: bypassing publishing companies. Professor Harry Fritz, chair of the history department, said he doesn’t limit his students to purchasing expensive, brand-new editions of books. He has The Bookstore buy as many out-of-print copies of old history books as it can, and allows students to do the same. “This all proceeds on the assumption that there’s not that much of a difference,” he said. “They all cover the same basic material, the same basic chronology.” However, many professors do require very specific texts, Fritz said, and it’s always a good idea to check before purchasing an old one. The Bookstore has taken a page from companies like half.com, and opened a site where students needing used books can buy directly from other students. The site’s advantage, Thornton said, is that students can meet the seller in person and see the book before buying it. Since the site is UM-specific, it also increases the likelihood that a particular book will be for sale. And, Thornton said, since The Bookstore is nonprofit, “it really doesn’t matter to us where you get the book as long as it’s the right book.”