I had witnessed the convenience of an online bookstore first-hand as a college instructor, but it wasn’t until I visited a brick-and-mortar college store during rush that I realized how much can go wrong while a student is doing something as seemingly simple as buying a textbook. I thought that listing the book, the author and the ISBN number on my syllabus was more than enough to ensure students had their course materials in time for my class. Little did I know.
After watching college kids throng the bookstore aisles for two days, I realize why so many of my students often appeared in my classes well into the semester without the required course materials. I know why many shrugged and claimed the bookstore did not have the required text in stock, even though, when I inspected the shelves myself, I saw that it was.
5 problems an online bookstore solves
- Borges Syndrome — “We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and our future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information,” wrote the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges in his beloved short story The Library of Babel. Students succumbed to what I call Borges Syndrome — a kind of vertigo — when they encountered the library-esque stacks in a windowless section of the bookstore they entered to buy their textbooks. Most college bookstores arrange their course materials in warrens like these. As I watched students wander dizzily among the shelves, they seemed to regress in age, becoming more helpless with each step. The chances they would navigate the cavern successfully seemed to diminish with each moment. Once Borges Syndrome set in, any number of problems could arise, including a fatigue that caused students to give up and leave in despair. An online bookstore would not cause Borges Syndrome. The student wouldn’t face stacks of books, only a familiar screen in a familiar shopping landscape. If the provider offered Shop by Schedule, then the student would not have to search for books at all. He or she would enter an ID number and the required course materials would appear onscreen.
- Same author, different title — In the bookstore I visited, titles were shelved by author last name. So, students who persisted in finding their way to the place where their book might be located often grabbed the first title under that name. Unfortunately, textbook authors often write more than one book. Indeed, they’re usually well known in their field so they write multiple books. More than once, I saw a student walk off quickly with a book that may or may not have been the correct work. I suspect many had to make returns. If a student were purchasing from an online bookstore, this wouldn’t happen.
- Same title, different edition — Most students aren’t aware that books come in more than one edition — and even fewer know books have ISBN numbers. In one case, I saw four different chemistry lab manuals that were identical in appearance except for a single number on the cover. I don’t doubt many students made off with the incorrect manual. Again, a number probably made returns. I’d bet a handful simply complained that they “never used the book.” An online bookstore with Shop by Schedule would end this problem.
- Re-shelving — Sometimes it looked as though the bookstore was out of a particular title, when, in fact, the workers had not yet had a chance to restock the shelves. During rush, titles move off the shelves so quickly, it’s almost impossible for bookstore staff to keep up. This isn’t a problem when students are ordering directly from a warehouse. Even when a book is listed as “out of stock,” a student can immediately place an order for the next shipment online. He or she doesn’t have to wait in a separate line or fill out a form, or contact customer service to find out when a new title might come in.
- Lines — If Borges Syndrome didn’t destroy students’ impression of the college store, then the long, winding lines during rush surely did. Not only did students have to wait in long lines to buy books. They had to wait in lines to pick up access codes for digital textbooks, to download lists of required course materials, to find out whether missing items were in stock and to get questions answered. For students willing to wait, the entire project could easily devour an afternoon or more. Online bookstores eliminate all lines.
Although the college store’s staff impressed me with knowledge and hard work, I left wondering how they could make ends meet given the negative view students would have of the store after buying their textbooks. I also wondered how schools can afford to keep selling books this way. Ultimately, students’ experience of the store is lumped with their experience of the school.
As long as textbooks are attached to the store, students think of going to the college retailer as a once-a-semester visit to a torture zone. They’ll get their required materials and they won’t return again unless forced. If the textbooks component is removed, however, that could change radically. The store can become a retail paradise — a place that offers all the items students covet most — spirit wear, technology, designer goods — along with sensational snacks and coffee. The online bookstore and the campus store can become places known for taking care of students — and the school’s reputation can blossom as a result.