Battle in the textbook aisle

By Michael O'Connor

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Michelle Williams/Collegian

Last winter, I was waiting in line behind at Amherst Books, picking up the portion of my textbooks that I didn’t buy at Food For Thought, at the Textbook Annex or online. The line was at a standstill.

In front of me, a young professor was listing the books she had assigned and trying to pick up a desk copy, the copy she would use as instructor of the course, provided by the book store as part of the sale of course books. The clerk was politely explaining why he couldn’t give her any.  Hardly any of the course books had sold and the rest would have to be sent back to the publisher.  The bookstore couldn’t supply a desk copy without taking a loss.

Outside the bookstore, as I was describing the events inside, the same professor overheard my conversation. She told me that other instructors had run into the same problem.

Since the University had requested course syllabi be posted earlier than before, the Textbook Annex was able to find and purchase books which professors had not requested. This allowed the Annex to profit from students drawn to the convenience of a private distributor on the public university campus, or those unaware of other options in town. This small event foretold the increasing loss of local textbook sales, as evidenced by Food for Thought Books’ near-collapse last year.

The decline in textbook sales for local bookstores cannot be attributed to the Textbook Annex alone. Last winter, Amazon.com took the poaching of books sales to a new level. In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2011, Amazon promoted a smartphone application that allowed shoppers to scan the barcodes of books at their local bookstore and compare these prices to the cheapest listings on Amazon. To encourage consumers to use local bookstores as storefronts for Amazon, the company offered $5 off any book (up to three) the customer scanned. Bookstore owners and authors were appalled by this imposition on their space.

Yet the confidence underlying this campaign, that Amazon could be so sure to have a lower price than anywhere else, is equally startling. This promotion also suggests that Amazon will make enough in the long run, by alienating consumers from their local bookstores, that they can afford to pay customers to buy their books online. A cynical view might suggest that bookstores, as private businesses, are responsible for their own ability to compete in the textbook market, to offer an interchangeable product at a competitive price.

On the other hand, local bookstores do more than sell books and the rise of online textbook sales goes beyond a shift in methods of exchange. Amherst Books and Food For Thought are also the site of community events. Amherst Books regularly hosts public readings from the University of Massachusetts Master of Fine Arts programs, where writers share their poetry and fiction outside the walls of the University. Food for Thought is currently hosting a winter film series, and has a “Pioneer Valley Zine Fest” coming in February to celebrate locally published zines.

Stores a little farther from campus offer other advantages. Gray Matter offers rare books in a variety of fields. Flying Object primarily operates as a nonprofit art and publishing organization.  These stores are also part of a local economy which relies on the support of surrounding schools.  Private colleges like Amherst College don’t pay local taxes directly, but indirectly provide revenue when students pay taxes at a local bookstore. When students purchase from Amazon, these local taxes are lost and the gap between campus and local life grows deeper.

Many undergraduates aren’t concerned with these changes. Few students see the Valley as their permanent home and I imagine fewer still feel responsible for the stability of Amherst’s local economy after they graduate. This attitude of geographic flexibility, of alienation from any localized place, contributes greatly to Amazon’s success.

But by buying books online, the consumer is cut off further from human interaction and from local jobs. There is no banter with a clerk on Amazon, no running into other customers. The exchange of books is becoming as mystified as their production.

I hope to remind readers of buying books locally but also of all books stores can be. Amazon’s campaign relied upon reducing the purchase of books to a question of pure numbers, a reduction which makes Amazon look pretty good. I would encourage students to take time for the other benefits of local bookstores, to attend a poetry reading or watch a film screening.

These opportunities to step out of the compartmentalized space of university life give another perspective on the bookstores in town, and make the non-space of browsing Amazon look pretty bad.

Michael O’Connor is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]