Behind the Shelf

    A UCSD student peruses the shelves of the UCSD Bookstore looking for required reading for fall quarter. (Hydie Cheung/Guardian)

    At the distribution center, four docks fill with trucks unloading their goods — custom sweatshirts, snack foods, shampoos, textbooks, greeting cards, iPods — all eventually headed to the UCSD Bookstore, where student employees will sift through the rubble, stocking various product departments on an hourly wage.

    Similar products find their way to smaller vendors next door though on a scale more in tune with the stores’ stature. Products placed on cramped shelves of the campus co-ops go through the hands of little-paid communal workers, or even unpaid volunteers.

    Of the three textbook sellers on campus — the UCSD Bookstore, Groundwork Books and the General Store Co-op — the UCSD Bookstore in Price Center is easily the most visible. Because of this, it gets more criticism from students, as well as more business.

    “I know it’s cheaper to buy books online, but some people don’t get their books [delivered] until [a few weeks] into the quarter, so it’s more convenient to buy them at [the UCSD Bookstore],” Eleanor Roosevelt College junior Kevin Staight said. “Price Center is so much easier and it’s central.”

    Textbooks are the one item in the bunch that offer students almost no choice in selection. Professors make the call and we bow to their better judgment, but while students have little say in what to purchase, we can still decide where and why.

    “I prefer purchasing books at Groundwork,” said Chris McCoy, an Eleanor Roosevelt College junior and an Associated Students senator. “It focuses more on social justice and progressive issues and it’s not just the UCSD corporate model; it’s a lot different.”

    UCSD junior Amy Lomeli helps stock the shelves as a UCSD Bookstore employee. (Hydie Cheung/Guardian)

    Owned by UCSD, the bookstore reports to Business Affairs rather than Student Affairs, which Price Center management and University Centers fall under. At UCLA, a bookstore run by Associated Students is able to use profits for student activities, but also to receive funding from student fees.

    Here at UCSD, student funds do not provide for the UCSD Bookstore’s operation, but consequently, proceeds never make their way back to students other than through the store’s services, allowing it to maintain capital for future expansion of inventory or repairs.

    Part of that difference is in management. While the UCSD Bookstore is corporately modeled and oversees 190 lower-level student job positions, the co-ops are an experiment in community.

    According to the Groundwork Books Web site: “The co-ops are not-for-profit organizations that provide students, faculty, and staff at UCSD with the highest quality merchandise and services at the lowest prices possible. [They] are an educational experiment in nonhierarchical organization. All members of the UCSD community are invited to participate in this experiment.”

    All proceeds from Groundwork Books go to the UCSD Co-op organization, helping to sustain the system as well as provide for the general-stock books available. According to the Web site prices are set as low as possible in an attempt to “provide off-beat alternatives to the items and the atmosphere offered by mainstream corporate UCSD.”

    While the UCSD Bookstore sets a 25-percent profit margin before discounting books, Groundwork exceeds the recommended retail price set by publishers on less than 1 percent of texts.

    “The suggested retail price is 20 cents on the dollar,” Groundwork Textbook Co-Coordinator Rudy Duran said, noting that the increase is an increase on the price paid directly to the publisher and doesn’t account for the cost of shipping.

    Regardless of the difference in profit margin, neither store should receive the same textbook orders from professors. Some departments, such as ethnic studies, tend to order their books through Groundwork only.

    “We ask professors not to order through both the [UCSD] Bookstore and Groundwork,” Duran said. “But we’re not interested in competition with the Bookstore; we’re not seeking to stop them from existing. We’re interested in general stock — textbooks just keep the store afloat.”

    A third campus vendor, the General Store Co-op, competes directly with the UCSD Bookstore for sales, and guarantees lower prices on the same materials. To facilitate this, the UCSD Bookstore provides a list of the textbooks ordered through them to the General Store.

    “It makes life easier,” UCSD Bookstore Director John Turk said. “If we don’t do that there can be an interruption to the university system. Our mandate is not to monopolize. It is to provide service to students.”

    However, the General Store tries to stock texts that have sold well in the past.

    “We stock mainly science books based on past sales and student enrollment,” General Store staffer Jeff Wang said in an e-mail. “We generally stick to books that had high demands.”

    But when it comes to pricing, the General Store does its own research.

    “We check at the bookstore and online to make our prices lower, and we try to stock as many used books as possible,” Wang said.

    Due to limited space, the General Store is not able to offer the same vast selection as the UCSD Bookstore. But it can keep prices 5 to 25 percent lower, because — like the UCSD Bookstore and unlike Groundwork Books — the General Store is not dependent on textbooks for survival.

    “We stock the books that the [UCSD] Bookstore sells because we want to give the students a cheaper alternative to buy books,” Wang said. “The bookstore charges unreasonable prices for the required texts because they know students will buy [them] there. We provide our business not to gain profit but to stick it up to the Man, basically. We want the students to know that the bookstore isn’t doing business for the sake of them.”

    The university is largely supportive of the co-op lifestyle and keeps rent low for both the General Store and Groundwork; however, like those at the UCSD Bookstore, operating costs play a large role in sustaining business and all three have recently undergone expansion and construction.

    Instead of renting the space like all other retailers in Price Center, the UCSD Bookstore owns its property within the center, including the new Sunshine Market in Price Center East and Perks, the cafe located on the northwest corner.

    “Conventional wisdom thinks that we’re connected with Price Center, but that is just not true,” Turk said.

    UCSD Bookstore staff at work in the textbook department. (Hydie Cheung/Guardian)

    While student-approved fees paid for the expansion of Price Center, the UCSD Bookstore’s expansion was self-funded. A contract creating a multiple-income source for Price Center’s construction and expansion separated the bookstore from the university as a business. The bookstore itself boasts newly expanded electronics and textbook sections, as well as more space for supplies, clothing, gifts and home and bath products.

    “This expanded area, if successful, will allow us to pay the debt on expansion and construction,” Turk said.

    Turk also noted that the bookstore will now be able to extend its hours, pay for the higher cost of using paper and canvas bags (in a push to eliminate plastic) and expand inventory.

    “We get a lot of student input and we are listening; students wanted longer hours, and there is a push for sustainability,” Turk said. “We are trying to answer demand.”

    Staff at the General Store Co-op, however, have complaints about their new facility.

    “Around two years ago when we were at Groundwork’s new location, we used the room where KSDT is now located to sell books,” Wang said. “That area was very advantageous to our textbook business because it’s in the heart of the old Student Center and a shortcut where all students had to walk through if they want[ed] to get from Revelle or Muir to the other colleges. But now we are located on the outskirts of the old Student Center where no one can see us unless they are going to the pub or the Grove.”

    With the popularity of buying books, and not just textbooks, through online vendors like Amazon and Half.com, independent bookstores have been shutting down.

    But with an expanded space — even if not ideally located — and a wide selection of products, neither the UCSD Bookstore nor the General Store is too dangerously threatened by the external pressures plaguing all book-only outfits, though both noted a recent decline in textbook sales.

    If it weren’t allowed to sell textbooks, Groundwork Books would have a much harder time maintaining operations and offering students the alternative business model.

    “We’re really interested in students having a voice in the business on campus and experiencing a non-hierarchical work environment, but we have a need for life, so we sell textbooks,” Duran said.

    McCoy is one of many students who have enjoyed this alternative.

    “I just like the feeling of Groundwork better,” McCoy said. “It feels so much more corporate at the UCSD Bookstore. [At Groundwork] it’s more of a home feel.”

    Nevertheless, as an A.S. senator, McCoy is interested in finding a way to use textbooks as funding for student activities.

    “I’m trying to see how A.S. can run a bookstore,” McCoy said. “It would be the most self-sustaining way to put money back into the student body.”

    UC Berkeley used a student-run bookstore model in the past similar to UCLA’s. But while UCLA’s bookstore — which McCoy noted as an inspiration to his idea — has been a success, UC Berkeley’s store was eventually leased to a private party after the student body failed to provide adequate service and refused to hire professional management.

    With a wealth of current options and the possibility of future additions to on-campus textbook purchasing, it all comes down to students, professors and vendors to decide which business model, price and location they prefer. Options may be limited in purchasing textbooks, but they’re not in where, when and how we purchase.

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