As a University of Chicago undergrad in the early ’90s, I had a thrice-yearly ritual. Head to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, a homely but well-stocked basement-level shop with exposed pipes, narrow aisles, and a mazelike arrangement of shelves. Squeeze into the warren in back designated for assigned texts and stock up on Barthes, Foucault, Marx-Engels, etc. After shouldering through the scrum of classmates performing the same task, take a moment to contemplate the shelves of fiction set quietly apart from the fray. Make a mental list of what to pick up cheap later at one of Hyde Park’s many used bookstores; the required texts wrecked my book budget.
The typical student bookstore experience—get in, get out, contemplate the months of ramen to come—has never been a great way to cultivate a love of books. It’s never about the literary joys of serendipitous discovery; it’s about the bureaucratic routine of required reading. Even before the thrice-annual draining of my wallet, the college bookstore was tough to romanticize.
But today, campus bookstores’ long-term survival depends on abandoning literary pretense altogether. According to the National Association of College Stores, which represents approximately 3,000 campus retailers, course materials account for a smaller and smaller proportion of total bookstore sales, ticking down from 57 percent in 2009 to 56 percent in 2010, to 54 percent last year. At the University of Tennessee, textbooks account for just 36 percent of sales according to director David Kent, who anticipates the figure will be between 20 and 25 percent in a couple of years. “And that’s right where we want to be,” he says. “We don’t want to be out of that business, but we want to be diversified enough in our offerings that we’re not so dependent on one particular category.”
What happened? Not e-textbooks, at least not yet. American universities are experimenting more with them: A much-discussed pilot program led by publisher McGraw-Hill launched at five universities earlier this year, and cable-TV company Discovery recently announced its own e-textbook plan for the K-12 set. However, the old-fashioned print textbook still accounts for the overwhelming majority of sales. What’s different now is students’ ability to sidestep the bookstore to acquire them. The Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in 2008, required schools to provide texts’ ISBN numbers in course listings, facilitating robust comparison shopping—and more online buying. Stores responded by supporting more affordable textbook rentals, but with an increasing number of websites offering the same service (Amazon stepped into the physical-textbook rental business earlier this month), that’s trading one margin-wrecking hypercompetitive market for another.
“The traditional main source of revenue has leveled out, and we realize that in the future it will decline,” says NACS spokesperson Charlie Schmidt.Indeed, Defining the College Store of 2015, a 2010 white paper by the NACS Foundation, the organization’s research arm, exhorts members to expand into new markets fast. “Shift from being a book store to a campus store in the broadest sense of the phrase,” one boldfaced passage reads.
To talk with Schmidt and NACS Foundation head Vicki Morris-Benion about the future of college bookstores is to talk about pretty much everything besides books: The college store of 2015 is one part Target, one part ESPNU, one ever-shrinking part course materials: There are the requisite team-branded T-shirts, notebooks, and shot glasses, but also computer repair, dry cleaning, grab-and-go sushi, pop-up stores, Wii competitions, poetry slams, train tickets. The value of the bookstore in the next few years is being reduced to its simplest definition: it’s the place with a cash register. “Because we’re the gathering place, we also are the place that is best equipped to take money and collect sales tax,” Morris-Benion says.
It’s hard to bemoan students pursuing a better deal. After all, not every book you buy in college needs to become a beloved token of wisdom and knowledge; the genetics textbook shoring up a shelf in my father’s study 700 miles away from me stands in dusty testament to that. But the culture of cheaper textbook rentals does have consequences; embedded in it is the notion of books as a short-term disposable commodity. Mark Sample, an associate professor of English at George Mason University, is mindful of costs, and he recommends that his students go to Amazon first for books—he estimates that for one upcoming class students will save $35 over the campus store. But he’s no fan of leases. “As somebody who reads and loves books, I hate the idea that students will just be renting the book,” he says. “I worry that students won’t connect as much with a book they know they have to return.”
Bridging this gap—making texts affordable as well as meaningful—seems increasingly unlikely in the long run. Stores are “pinned between the incredibly high prices that publishers set for their products, and students, quite understandably, desiring the best deal that they can,” says Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication for the Modern Language Association. So we’ll likely see more of what the University of Tennessee bookstore is doing: In the next two years, Kent says, it will open four stores stuffed with headphones and team merchandise and iPads, and has plans to expand the team shops outside of Knoxville. Go Vols!
The college bookstore, in other words, is asphyxiating the college bookstore. Worse, it’s helpless to avoid doing so. The ideas bubbling under as possible saviors—e-textbooks, open textbooks—aren’t yet ready as workable substitutes. In the meantime, even the cursory experience of browsing and discovery I had is eroding in the face of rentals and sell-backs. Discovery, we have to trust, is the province of the classroom.
Mark Athitakis is a writer and editor in Washington, DC. He blogs at markathitakis.com.