University bookstores and how to undermine them

As we come to the end of the year, buying schoolbooks is one of the last things on our minds. But thinking ahead to next year, Arthur decided to look into the question of how exactly Trent’s bookstore works, and why book prices are set so high.

Currently, Trent University has a contract with Follett, a multinational conglomerate that operates over 900 university bookstores throughout North America. The bookstore holds obligations to both Trent University and Follett, but has some agency of its own. While it is obliged to stock the store with all the necessary books for courses, it has the power to expand outwards into other products like clothing, stationary, and promotional goods.

This is the direction that Katie Van Rooyen, manager of the Trent Bookstore, hopes to take it in. “We’re trying to move away from offering only textbooks, but also look at offering clothing and computer accessories in store,” she said. “We’re trying to listen to what students are looking for, and we’re trying to make sure we accommodate students on what they need.” For this reason, the bookstore is rebranding to the Trent University Campus Store, to show its diversity of products.

This will all supplement the main function of the store, to sell books. Yet, as book sales keep the store busy for a few weeks at the beginning of each semester, Van Rooyen is hoping to make the business more functional at all times of the year with these other types of products.

As for books, the process works like this: Follett receives booklists from professors for their courses and sets about acquiring these books. Because it such a large corporation, it is able to make deals with publishers to get books at a discounted rate. Follett has a large warehouse in Chicago where all of these books go. At the beginning of the semester, these books are shipped out to all the schools where they will be sold to students. Each individual institution has a contract with Follett that stipulates how much of a markup that the store can sell these books for. In exchange, Follett pays a lump sum of their monthly earnings to the university.

Due to these individualized contracts, campus bookstores are often not competitive with online book vendors or even local bookshops, and even across Follett store prices will vary. More and more students are turning to shops like or Chapters Indigo to get their course texts for sharply discounted rates than the campus shop.

Exorbitant book pricing is a growing problem across universities and many work around solutions have grown with it. The Google Chrome extension Occupy the Bookstore will compare the prices of the books on the Bookstore website with numerous Internet marketplaces. It does this by using the ISBN of the textbooks and searching for the same number across many sources.

At Trent specifically, the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) offers a book consignment program that allows students to sell their books through their store. The student is able to set the price of their book with the only stipulation that the TCSA takes a portion of the sale. These books are registered in a database that is available online. Students looking for books then go into the TCSA office and purchase the book there.

Trent Book Swap is a student run initiative that operates through a website and email list server. Students register the courses that they have and want books for. An email is sent to those looking for books with the email addresses of those selling books. It is then up to the student who received the list to contact people and arrange prices, pick-up, etc.

There are also numerous Facebook groups for Trent students selling and looking for books, like Trent University Book Exchange and Trent Books for Sale. On these group pages students post photos or updates about the books they have and how much they are hoping to sell them for.

The Sadleir House Library, because most of its collection comes from students’ donations, has a fair collection of course texts that have been used in past years. Furthermore, Bata Library is obliged to have a copy of all books used in Trent University courses.

And of course, there are the cozy used bookstores around Peterborough’s downtown that are happy to offer many classic texts and course books to Trent students. In particular, Jokinen’s Books has a shelf at the front of the store every September with as many books used in Trent courses as Jokinen has in stock.

The beginning of a semester can be hard on every student’s bank account. There are so many options for acquiring course books that can take the edge off, even a little bit. And who knows, you might even get lucky at OPIRG’s Free Market where I once found a textbook that would have cost me $110 for free.

via University bookstores and how to undermine them.