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Mike Johnson '11: Money can't buy me ... text

As spring kicks into high gear far too early for any of us to handle, all of our hard-earned summer cash is doomed to spiral (counter-clockwise, since we're in the northern hemisphere) straight down the drain. The city of Providence is looking forward to the Brown community returning to its stores and restaurants, providing the millions of dollars of income that keep the city afloat (student tax notwithstanding).

But that's not where the semester's first mountain of cash will vaporize; rather, hundreds of dollars will vanish with the swipe of a card at the Brown Bookstore. It's a necessary expense; not many professors are proponents of the "it's true because I say so" approach to teaching. Invariably, every semester, humanities concentrators arm themselves for the fruitless debate against sciences concentrators over who spends more money on textbooks. But the real debate should be, why do we choose to spend as much as we do?

For most of my tenure here at Brown, I've resigned myself to the attitude that I didn't have a choice.  When handing out the syllabus, my professors would claim, "All of these are available at the bookstore." The bookstore is conveniently located on Thayer Street, and I can buy everything there, without worrying that I won't be able to find what I need. By contrast, Borders and were so "over there." What I didn't realize, however, is that I was paying heavily for the convenience of the bookstore.

The Brown Bookstore is a rip-off. I know it; you know it; the employees of the bookstore know it. The bookstore overcharges for what it sells, and when students opt to participate in the deceptively benevolent-sounding "textbook buyback" program, it shells out pennies on the dollar, effectively making a sizable profit twice on the same book. This sort of scheme makes Bernie Madoff drool. Yes, the Brown Bookstore is a business, and it deserves to make a profit, but is it necessary for that profit to come via price gouging, which harms students?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that the bookstore can only charge what it does for textbooks because no one is telling it not to. In this wonderful free market society of ours, the bookstore is entitled to charge whatever it likes for textbooks, no matter how insane the markups are, so long as people keep buying. While outrage and hullabaloo spread through the student population faster than the swine flu, the only recourse that truly affects the bookstore is taking our money elsewhere.

The Brown Bookstore is not a monopoly; there are scores of establishments that sell books required for our classes. Speaking from experience, the Brown Bookstore is not the only place to obtain a copy of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden." There's a Borders 15 minutes' walk from campus, and Amazon (where books grow on trees) is a click away. With the economy still working on that "slow but strong" recovery plan, money is tight; why not shop around?  It won't really kill us to take an hour or two out of the daily allotment of Facebook time and check out Amazon's prices.

To be clear: I am not advocating a full-out boycott of the Brown Bookstore.  Instead, I'm simply a proponent of bargain hunting. Many professors don't really care if you have the same edition as they do, so long as the words are the same. Other professors, if they insist on using the same editions, will issue the ISBN of the edition they prefer.

Coincidentally, a federal law, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, goes into effect July 1, and makes this process mandatory. Pop that into the search bar of Amazon and you have an instant price check. The bookstore even enables this process, posting their prices online. Check them all out and then buy the cheapest one.  If the bookstore continues to lose profits on textbook sales, prices will drop faster than you can say "invisible hand rhymes with supply and demand."

The power of the purse strings is one of the most effective powers students have during this process. To not exercise it is irresponsible and lazy.  The hallmark of the consumer experience is choice, and it would be a disservice to cast off those choices in favor of convenience. I personally plan to shop at the Brown Bookstore, so long as they can offer me the lowest price on the specific books I need. If they can't, I'm taking my dead presidents elsewhere.

Mike Johnson '11 spent most of break playing Beatles Rock Band, seriously influencing his titles.


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