The Middlebury Campus

Let’s Sell Books in the Apparel Store


This September, the Middlebury College Bookstore announced that all textbook sales would take place online rather than through the on-campus bookstore. Beginning in the spring 2018 semester, textbooks were to become available for sale through the MBS online platform.

In order to quell anxieties which arose around the new system, the store assured students that they would retain the ability to use their financial aid, and that the turn-around for book orders would be approximately two to three days. This last piece is crucial for students who, at the start of the semester, find themselves still shopping for classes, much less books.

While this shift was initially championed in the name of convenience for students, the first few weeks of this spring semester under the new system have disproved any such claims.

To begin with, nowhere in a college-wide email did the bookstore actually announce that there would no longer be physical textbooks available for purchase. Middlebury’s own website claimed that “During the summer [2018] session, the campus bookstores will not be carrying any textbooks.” This resulted in high levels of stress at the semester’s start, an already trying adjustment for students.

Further, gone is any pretence of two to three day shipping; books ordered through MBS Direct take as many as 10 days to arrive, eating up crucial class time. While there are faster options, such as Amazon and other online outlets, these can be increasingly expensive.

The new system also creates challenges for students navigating the add/drop period. As anyone who has taken a class at the college can attest, Middlebury’s add/drop period is vital for those attempting to construct their schedules at the beginning of each semester. The online bookstore has proved an enormous obstacle to what must remain a flexible process, as books are no longer immediately available for purchase. As a result, students are forced to gamble — either order books in advance for classes to which they have not yet committed, or wait until their schedule has solidified and endure the subsequent shipping period.

The reality is that even if students order their books on day one, classes move too fast for 10-day shipping — the cheapest option — and this makes it harder for a student to join a class a few days late, even if there is room for them.

In addition, a complicated return policy makes it harder for students to drop a class.

“Having already ordered the textbook played a huge role in my deciding to stick with Intro to Modern Logic this semester,” says Ellie Eberlee ’20, an opinion editor. “I’d already paid $171 for it and had no ability to return it for free.” Not only is this incredibly restraining, but it is wrong, as the logistics of obtaining required materials should play no part in students’ course decisions.

Some students have even refrained from buying books as a result of the new system. They claim to be ordering books they think they need versus all of the required texts, and then finding PDF versions of the text online.

“The system change this year made it seem like such a hassle, and I found a slightly older version so easily online,” says Jordana Solomon ’20. “It seemed silly to spend more money and time on a new book I would never use again.” The majority of students, however, look to buy from outside sources.

“They used the same system at my high school, so I’m used to it,” says Eve Labalme ’20. She shrugs. “I just ordered my books on Amazon for half the price.”

Amazon offers free two-day shipping for students, as well as a variety of used and reduced prices. What does it say when a global corporation can more adequately cater to students’ needs than the college itself? As a result, the mail center staff has been overworked, and lines to pick up packages have become noticeably longer. This is a clear signal that the new system is irredeemably inconvenient; the college should aim to provide the simplest and most direct route to course materials.

At its core, the new system makes a number of socioeconomic assumptions. First, it assumes that all students are paying (or have the ability to pay) for books using a credit or debit card. Second, it gives priority to students who have the means to pay for expedited shipping. Those for whom the extra fee is one sum too many are left sitting in class at the the start of semester, panicking for lack of access to required materials and wondering why their situation does not appear to be a concern for the college.

While the library offers a cost-free alternative, most courses only put a single textbook on reserve. In classes with up to 35 students, this is nowhere near sufficient. The library’s lack of on-reserve texts may have been a pre-existing problem, but the shift to virtual book shopping (temporary or otherwise) has foregrounded the issue.

The obvious solution? Bring the books back. The physical bookstore may not have been perfect, but problems associated with the new system far outnumber the old ones. An on-campus bookstore with a full stock of the texts the required by the college is not an unreasonable request.

In returning to the physical bookstore, students and staff could work together in order to streamline the process and strike a realistic compromise that is both economically feasible and convenient. Barring that, a more functional system involves increased communication between the bookstore and professors. If a professor is teaching a class they’ve taught for the past several years, perhaps they could upload or share their syllabus more than a few weeks in advance.

Some students have to borrow money or budget, processes that take more than a few weeks. This would help with lowering costs (students can buy a book for less if it means they can save more on shipping) and add a buffer zone for incorrect texts or editions. Professors also could refrain from asking students to buy books when they plan on assigning only a few chapters for reading; photocopying is an effective alternative.

Outside of the college, there are ways to reduce the burden on Middlebury’s bookstore. Professors could send their syllabi to bookstores in town; not only would the college be supporting local businesses, but this would open another relatively immediate avenue for students to purchase books.

Additionally, students or the college could facilitate the “selling forward” of books from student to student, a practice which currently takes place largely through “Free and For Sale,” a student Facebook group. Members of the town could participate, as they often audit classes or else own old copies of books required for literature classes. Retired professors could also use this platform to get rid of books they have collected over the years.

Beyond logistics, we believe there is immense value in having physical books in a bookstore. How are we, as students, supposed to read this latest move on the part of the college? Our college campus no longer includes a functioning bookstore. Instead, we have more shelf space for a fifth iteration of the Middlebury-brand water bottle.

That seems like an apt metaphor for the college’s priorities, which appear more in line with running a profitable business than an institute of higher learning — otherwise they would do everything in their power to make required texts as accessible as possible. If there is one place a school can afford to lose money, it is on books.

1 Comment

One Response to “Let’s Sell Books in the Apparel Store”

  1. Todd ('90) on March 10th, 2018 11:03 am

    There is no free lunch.

    As an alumnus and parent of an incoming student for the class of 2026, I am pretty sure that the college does not really take a loss on anything. Someone pays. That someone is you (and me). A loss on text books means you (and I) pay somewhere else in the comprehensive fee, room & board, student activities fee profit on those clothes and water bottles or a depletion of the endowment, etc. (And, before we complain about clothing and water bottle sales, it would be good to know if the profit on that stuff offsets something, like textbooks…)

    My suggestion to the Editorial Board is if you want to complain about something, your argument becomes much more powerful if you quantify it rather than just quote anecdotes. For example, I would have been curious to know some of these facts:
    • Were fewer books purchased through the bookstore this semester than past semesters? Would be a good indication how the inconvenience drove behavior.
    • Was the price of books lower this semester? If you believe the “no free lunch” argument, then someone was paying for the inventory carrying cost of extra textbooks in the bookstore. Did the efficiency savings get passes along to you (and me)? Or did shipping cost eat up all of those savings?
    • What is the cost differential between photocopies and textbooks? I assume that the publishers know what content is most important in the textbooks and would likely charge a reproduction fee that approximates the cost of the book – or else, why let you (and me) bypass their fee?

    I get that you (and I) may want the convenience of having books in stock. It makes sense. But knowing there is no free lunch, I would like to know what the trade-offs are for carrying all that inventory and processing returns, etc. If that is not how you (and I) want to prioritize how we deploy the money we pay to the college, we should, by all means, change our priorities.

    Good luck this semester!