The Paradox of Private Bookstores

Claire Ommen, Features writer

With the beginning of the new academic year, all students feel the financial pressure of buying textbooks. With a steady increase in the price of textbooks in the last ten years, many students have sought alternatives to purchasing traditional textbooks. Students see e-books or retailers such as Amazon as cheaper alternatives to purchasing books in overpriced campus bookstores. As students take their money elsewhere, bookstores on college campuses begin to feel the strain. Independently owned bookstores take the worst hit. In fact, the bookstore at Whitman College is one of the only independent bookstores remaining in Washington. This trend away from college bookstores belies some more serious issues than simple textbook inflation.

In the last ten years, textbook prices have risen 86 percent, and continue to increase by about 6 percent each year. For reference, the average rate of inflation in America is currently 2 percent per year. So why are textbooks outstripping the rest of the economy by 300 percent?

Privately owned bookstores have almost no control over the prices of the books they sell. In reality those prices are set by the publishers. Whitman buys most of its new textbooks from the publishing company Pearson, as do most colleges, universities and school districts in the United States. Pearson owns several other smaller publishing companies, in addition to most of the major education consultants (such as the SAT, and teacher’s licensing assessments) in America. This monopolistic hold on the textbooks in the education system allows the company to dictate which books are selected for use, and to set the prices of those books.

Meanwhile, college bookstores try to maintain a hold on a market quickly escaping them. In 2011, 22.6 percent of the books purchased in America were bought via, as Amazon offers a discount over many other retailers. E-books also claim a share of the business from college students, because e-books can cost 60 percent less than their paper equivalents. Correspondingly, there has been a 12.2 percent decrease in the number of independent college bookstores since 1997. The negative repercussions of the loss of independently owned bookstores could be greater than immediately apparent.

“Being competitive with online and big box retailers is our biggest challenge,” said Janice King, Book Acquisitions Specialist at the Whitman College Bookstore. “Books are the big thing … keeping the bookstore alive.”

King handles most of the textbook purchases for the Whitman bookstore. She and Tracy Oberg, the bookstore’s Merchandise and Marketing Specialist, work together with the publishers, administration and students so as to best meet the needs of all parties. Oberg’s job as manager includes reaching out to the student community at Whitman to determine which products the store will carry.

“We are able to personalize the store to reflect the culture and priorities of the Whitman community,” said Oberg. “Our customer is the student; that’s who we care about.”

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Whitman Bookstore. Photo by Madaline Stevens

This level of student influence over the store’s merchandise is not common on most campuses. The advantages of a privately-owned bookstore can be seen in a variety of ways, from the club apparel sold in the store, to the large quantity of chocolate on the shelves, to this year’s supply of used physics textbooks.

“Prices are set by publishers and distributors. Used books [are] where we have more control,” said King.

The textbooks in question were purchased one at a time, until the store had enough copies resulting in an estimated 40-50 percent savings for students who purchased that book. The managers and employees of the Whitman Bookstore strive to operate a store which reflects the community, and which can provide the students with everything they need. Additionally, all profits of the Whitman bookstore are returned to the college, for the benefit of the community.

Though Independently-owned bookstores are less secure than those backed by companies such as Barnes and Noble, they are able to offer many services that those larger companies simply cannot. The differences are apparent if one ventures into the Walla Walla University Bookstore which is backed by a larger franchise. There, the larger company sets the standards for textbook prices, often at a mark-up even from the publisher’s prices.

Larger companies are also unable to offer many of the used book and buy-back deals of privately-owned stores. Last semester, students at Whitman received a total of 71,000 dollars from the bookstore from buybacks alone. The store also recently introduced a loyalty program called the “Whitcoin,” which will reward students with increasing discounts as they spend money at the school store.

“I’m always open to carry what students want. If I can get a deal on the item, I get a deal,” said Oberg.

Despite the work of the managers to benefit Whitman Students, the store still faces criticism. High prices are not made more affordable by the other benefits to the Whitman community. The publishing companies earn immense profits from college students; last year, Pearson took in a net profit of 1.5 billion dollars. With profits of that size, there is little incentive for publishers to reduce their prices to a more affordable rate.

Because independent bookstores rely upon the business of students for their success, they cannot fall back on other franchises for support. While their goals are noble and their efforts productive, the fact remains that some students cannot afford the books sold at independent bookstores. Regardless of whether or not students wish to support the college-owned store, it is not practical for all of them. This creates a paradox within the college community: to pay more for books in order to support the other advantages the bookstore provides the community, or to seek a more financially efficient solution. Many Whitman students reflected that their own opinions regarding the Whitman Bookstore were irrelevant when faced with other (far less expensive) options.

First-year Lucy O’Sullivan sums up this paradox and echoes the views of many of her peers, saying, “it’s just too damn expensive.” One student at Whitman went as far as to pen an anonymous letter, venting his or her frustration. Although the letter directed blame at the bookstore, rather than the publishers, the sentiments it expressed were valid concerns. Students need to use these books, and as their cost increases students find it more and more difficult to afford them. Publishing companies hold a monopoly which allows them to charge any price for textbooks, putting both the students and the independent bookstores in a state of financial distress.