According to a recent article in the New York Times, bookstores at several colleges around the country are no longer selling textbooks. Instead, the bookstores are either focusing on selling college merchandise, school supplies and general books, or are shutting down their physical locations completely to go online. At a few colleges, students now get their textbooks through Amazon, which has partnered with the institutions to share some of its proceeds.
As I read this article, I felt intrigued — and a little concerned — by this new trend. I can understand why colleges are switching to using Amazon. Course materials are often more affordable and convenient to purchase online. I, too, use Amazon regularly to buy e-books or books that are no longer in stock at the bookstore. But ultimately, campus bookstores should keep selling textbooks as long as doing so remains profitable.
Selling textbooks can be a major source of revenue for campus bookstores. Students might need textbooks urgently or might require specific editions that are available at the bookstore but not verifiable online. Also skimming course-related books can be a useful factor for us when we decide which courses to take: Flipping through textbooks can allow us to preview our courses and get a clearer sense of their scope and material before we finalize our schedules. Plus, if we see books from other courses that interest us, we can discover classes to try out. In these ways, the textbook section of a campus bookstore is a valuable resource.
The process of physically engaging with a book becomes even more important when buying a used copy. In many cases, the only way to affordably obtain an out-of-print book would be a used version. But when buying used books, it is always a risk to order them online without first examining their actual conditions. When I decide to buy a used book, I first go to the campus bookstore, leaf through it to see if it is free of major damages and sense how it feels in my hand. I then pick the copy based on my physical experience of reading it — something I would not be able to do when comparing potentially misleading pictures of books on the Internet. Online retailers cannot capture this process, as I have learned from experience. I once bought a used book online and was disappointed to discover that it was in worse condition than I had expected. Though used books may be cheaper online, there is no guarantee that they are in good condition.
This brings me to another benefit of having textbooks available at a campus bookstore: the convenience of returning them. I once had to return my textbooks after I decided against taking a class that I was shopping. I had a great experience; the process was simple and efficient. By contrast, my brother once had a more difficult experience returning something to Amazon. I understand that Amazon, according to the New York Times article, is planning on setting up pickup areas where the staff will provide customer service. But I still think the best place for customer service would be the store that actually stocks the books, where returning a book and buying another copy right away would be much easier.
Campus bookstores that are not associated with major retailers are becoming harder to find, which is unfortunate. They sell a variety of interesting books — textbooks, works of fiction, autobiographies and essay collections — from both major publishing houses and smaller presses. Major brand-name booksellers often don’t sell as diverse a range of books. Frequent trips to the Barnes and Noble near my house have taught me that the store pretty much just sells popular titles and bestsellers. If campus bookstores become affiliated with Amazon, I feel they will lose a special quality that makes them interesting.
When I walk through the Brown Bookstore, I feel excited because I’m not sure what I’ll discover. I love browsing through the titles in the textbook and general sections to find new reads. I never experienced this when I visited the local Barnes and Noble — I always knew what I would find there. Campus bookstores are wonderful places to stumble upon something amazing. I really hope they stay that way.
Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.