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Thousands of Textbooks Await
Students at Campus Bookstore
August 30, 1999

ooks are everywhere. Jammed shelves are restocked constantly. Twenty registers cash out streams of students non-stop. Workers scurry to and from the basement, fetching canvas bags stuffed with textbooks ordered by freshmen and waiting for pick-up.

In a matter of days, the stock on the shelves will shrink. But in the meantime, the Co-op is a-buzz. "Controlled chaos" is how Madeline Spata describes it.

In the midst of it all, Spata, head of the Co-op's textbook division, reveals just a hint of nervousness. Only that suggests the complexities underlying the smooth operation of this member-owned cooperative, even at its busiest time of year.

The logistics are challenging. Each year, Spata and her staff of six handle requests from close to 1,000 faculty members for some 3,700 textbook titles, all needed in time for the start of classes. The number of copies of each title varies from as few as three for some graduate seminars, to as many as 900 copies for introductory chemistry classes.

"It's kind of a scramble toward the end of summer," Spata says. Although they deal with a few distributors, Spata and her staff fill most orders publisher by publisher. By late August, a steady stream of trucks makes daily deliveries of multiple pallets of books to the loading dock.

The earlier order lists come in, the better, she says. Although late teaching assignments or professors reviewing new editions may slow the process, Spata hopes to have most of the order lists in hand by the end of the spring semester, when the highly successful buy-back program moves into high gear.

With book prices hefty and continually climbing, the buy-back program offers substantial savings. A Co-op customer can recoup 50 percent of the new book price by reselling a book, whether it was bought new or used, as long as someone on the faculty is going to use it the following semester. The store also buys books that aren't going to be used again, at a lower price, and passes them on to a used book wholesaler.

The success of buy-back hinges on Spata knowing what books will be needed for the next semester. At buy-back, she finds out the number being returned, then the Co-op reorders the difference. She says many professors help the system work by not changing textbooks each year.

Michael Lynes, a professor of molecular and cell biology, has been using the same text in his undergraduate immunology course for the last four years. And although science texts are generally the most expensive, he won't consider any that are in the several-hundr ed-dollar range. "I was a student, too," he says, "and I remember getting assigned a set of textbooks that wiped out all my disposable income for the semester."

The English Department, the Co-op's single largest client, also has an eye to the cost for students. The faculty look for solid, comprehensive anthologies for their survey courses. "If we can have the student use it in more than one class, that's all to the good," says John Manning, associate head of the department. "Just about everyone keeps in mind the notion of what textbooks are going to cost the student."

Still, when freshmen and parents come for books the first time, there is frequently an element of sticker shock. The hugely successful Textbooks To Go program is a welcoming touch that helps soften the blow. This year 2,700 new students signed up for the free service, which allows Co-op staff to access the students' class schedules and pull all the required books ahead of time. When students come by, they're waiting, all together in a canvas bag with the TTG logo.

"Parents like it because they are confident that the student will get the right things the first time," says Spata. "We go through every bag of books with every student, showing and explaining what's what. It's the start of a nice four-year relationship."

For now, almost all the orders are in, but there's still September to get through, with the add/drop period, the occasional change in course caps, and more books to order. And then the process begins again, to order books for the spring semester. Now that the University has a two-week winter intersession, the turnaround is tighter than before.

"Down time?" says Spata. "There used to be, but it doesn't seem to happen anymore."

Janet Barrett