January 21, 2005

Don't tell prof we're still bookless

As third week draws to a close, with the quarter nearly a third over, most students find themselves preparing for the coming onslaught of midterms. Some, however, have not yet obtained their books for the quarter; a situation unusual in the past, but becoming more common as e-commerce, and subsequently the option of buying cheaper and used books, takes over.

Sarah Letson, a third-year in the College, has taken advantage of online options, and now buys the majority of her books at such websites as and She said she orders books online "mainly because it's a lot cheaper, because I don't care about having new books, and because I don't keep most of the books that I buy [for classes]. I only keep them if I actually like them."

Letson finds that she doesn't need to buy all her books at once, and makes sure that she is able to compensate for the time involved in the shipping process. "If it's for a reading class, I'll buy the first book at the Seminary Co-op, then order the rest. It takes a week to two weeks to get books, but if you're not going to read the book until the end of the quarter it doesn't matter."

Sandy Witkow, a second-year in the College, also orders his books online for price-related reasons. "I don't buy books at the Co-op, but instead write down what books I need, and buy them at to save money."

Unlike Letson, Witkow finds that it is sometimes tricky to get the books in time for the classes for which they are required. "I ordered a book for a history class, but it didn't come in time for the reading," he said. "I planned to do the reading at the Reg, but wasn't able to. Luckily, the book wasn't mentioned in class."

He added that many of the books he orders are not the authors' bestsellers, so they take longer to ship.

The University of Chicago Bookstore has addressed the issue of Internet competition by focusing on better service and assortment of merchandise. "To battle the impression that books online are less expensive, we have become much more aggressive about sourcing used books," said David Shields, the general manager of the University Bookstore. "We source used books from a variety of places, but the best source is from students themselves. To that end, by being aggressive about buying back more used books from students, we have more than doubled the dollars spent buying books back from students in the last year."

Jack Cella, the general manager of the Seminary Co-op, was not fazed by the availability of cheaper books online. "Students have lots of options now when considering from whom (or if) to buy books, and that probably is a good thing," he said.

Like the University Bookstore, the Co-op has kept customers loyal by always working on service improvement. Most strikingly, they have opened up seven cash registers in the opening days of the quarter to cut down the time that customers wait in line. Ultimately, "[t]here really has been no substantial loss of student business over the past five years," Cella said.

Another issue arises when bookstores do not have required texts on hand at the beginning of the quarter for students. Third-year college student Jan Lui complained, "I don't think I've ever been able to get all my books at once at the Co-op. This quarter for my Japanese Civ class, over half the books from the list were missing," Lui said. "What makes it worse is that the teachers are not always aware of this and the assigned readings are sometimes unavailable."

According to the general managers, this problem usually revolves around out-of-stock material at publishers, professors' tardiness in ordering books, and classes having more students than expected. With e-commerce expanding, however, students have more options open to obtain the books as needed, and fall less often into Lui's situation.

Lui deems himself lucky to be a science concentrator: "As a biology major, I don't have it bad. I generally don't need to buy books for more than one or two classes from the Co-op. I can only imagine the hassle the humanities students have to go through to get their books."