The Used-Textbook Game: Campus Stores Buy Low, Sell High

It was the end of my first semester in college when I encountered the inherent misery of selling back textbooks on campus. After spending $300 on 10 books that September, I went to sell them back to the store at semester's end. The clerk at the desk dutifully rang up each title, sending blue neon numbers flashing across the cash register's display. A moment later he handed me my refund - a meager $40.

Forty dollars? I had paid $300 only four months before, and all the books were in perfect condition, not a highlighted line or dog-eared corner anywhere in sight.

The following semester, I grew more distressed to see those same books restocked and priced at nearly double what I'd been given for them.

Seeking out the bookstore's manager, I questioned him as to the morality of the store's "buy low, sell high" routine. In response, he handed me a pamphlet that broke down the expenses of a new textbook.

For each book, about 66 percent of the price goes directly to the publisher. The remaining money is divided among the bookstore (13 percent), the author (10 percent), the university (8 percent), and the freight company (3 percent). Although this does raise the price of new books slightly, I was assured by the manager that it is simply the cost of doing business - standard bookstore practice.

When buying books back, the store sets the buy-back price as a matter of supply and demand. If a book has been reordered for the following semester, the store will often reimburse the student for as much as half the original price. If that book isn't on the reorder list, tough luck. Chances are the student will get much less for a used text, regardless of its condition.

Waiting until the end of the semester to sell back texts will often maximize buyback profits, the manager noted. At the last minute, even the most lackadaisical of professors will have ordered their texts for the next semester, increasing the chances of getting a prime buyback price.

I can understand the store's policy. After all, our campus store is a private money-making venture - it is there to make a profit as an outside business before it is there to cater to students' needs.

I still can't help but feel a little angry, though. After all, what was it about the books I sold back that made them worth so much less in only four months? Excepting the occasionally wrinkled spine, they weren't damaged. They were obviously in demand, otherwise they wouldn't have been restocked.

And then, over winter break, those very same books magically retained much of their value. A book bought from me for four bucks was now worth $10. The store makes a profit if I pay $20 for a book in September, it buys it back for $4, and sells it again for $10. The store, in effect, sells the $20 book for $26.

It's a wonderful scheme for making money, I must say. But from a business designed to support a university, an institution which should place students at the top of its priorities, this adversarial supply-and-demand approach over the basic tools for learning seems unfair. Students already pay student activity fees, technology fees, binder fees, application fees, late payment fees, transcript fees, and social fees for the dorms.

It seems to be an endless torrent of obscure bills with obscure names. And as a final insult, we must worry about being financially bested at the school store.

Since that semester I've kept all my texts; I may be a little less wealthy, but now I happily bend all the corners and highlight with impunity.

* Ethan Mitkowski is a senior studying journalism at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He enjoys hiking, fishing, and camping, and dabbles in photography.

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