Students scrounge around for the best deals on everything from car insurance to textbooks, but aside from finding out if professors will require a textbook, how well do these students research their options?
Aside from tuition, transportation and living expenses, purchasing school supplies can be one of a college student’s most expensive concerns and can range anywhere from $100 to several hundred dollars a semester. However, shoppers can dodge high prices or frantic searches for the “best deals” if they know what they want (price, selection or enough of both) and which store can serve them best before they set out to find it.
Less is More
Five minutes from campus, just west of 15th and Fletcher, USF students can find the cheapest prices for both new and used books–as compared to both USF Tampa and Gray’s College bookstores.
Shelves of textbooks stand behind the cashier’s counter. Books and More’s “counter service” allows customers to walk in, hand over a class schedule or book information and wait at the counter while store staff finds, retrieves, hands over and rings up the merchandise.
Books and More’s free online “express reservation” offers next day pick-up. Based on a student’s list of classes, store employees will find and hold any books that the student needs and have them ready for next-day pick-up.
“The (USF) bookstore is expensive,” said USF music education sophomore Rachel Wingert. “I don’t have financial aid.”
Books and More’s payment or discount plans include Instant Credit and its Sponsorship Program. In lieu of instant access to financial aid, the store allows customers who might be waiting for various forms of financial aid to write checks for up to $300 instant credit.
The Sponsorship Program offers registered student organizations checks for 7.5 percent of what its members bought when members turn in receipts after each semester’s refund period.
Wingert’s mom–a former USF student–told her about Books and More. Although Wingert shopped for basic school supplies at Wal-Mart and bought a $15 T-shirt bearing the new USF logo at J.C. Penny’s, she found Books and More usually had her textbooks in stock.
“It’s not like cheap, cheap,” she said, “It’s reasonable.”
What Books and More lacks in textbook and USF logo product selection, it makes up for in lower prices and full customer service. For shoppers who do not enjoy time spent browsing, searching, walking or even getting lost, which is more often associated with larger bookstores, Books and More’s compact location fits.
USF’s Tampa Bookstore’s multi-level size reveals an extensive selection of books, school supplies and USF paraphernalia. Annexed to the Phyllis P. Marshall Center, the bookstore’s on-campus centrality makes it a prime location for a consistent flow of human traffic.
“The lines can be long, because I wait ’til the last minute,” said Toni Davis, a USF junior majoring in political science. Once, she recalled, “I wanted to buy a shirt (but) didn’t want to get back in line.”
Perhaps the store’s rows, racks and shelves of muti-colored flip-flops, green and gold logo-emblazoned shirts, hats, gift-wrapped candy, notebooks, pens, pencils and various other school supplies did not catch her wallet the first time around.
“At first I was going to Gray’s,” Davis said, but that was until she observed “not much of a difference” in textbook prices.
For Davis, USF Bookstore’s Book Advance Purchase Program (BAPP) outweighed lower price advantages other bookstores offered. BAPP allows students, such as Davis, who was approved by USF’s Financial Aid office, instant access to pay with their financial aid/scholarship money by showing a picture ID upon checkout. BAPP has been available to fall semester customers since July 26.
Jeff Mack, who is the director of USF’s Auxiliary Services, said the Bookstore’s responsibility is to provide all of the right items for the classes at the time the students need them.
“There are more used books available at the USF Bookstore than there are at any other local bookstores,” Mack said.
Projected class sizes and professors’ textbook requests help determine how many of which books the bookstore has.
While USF still owns the campus bookstore, Barnes and Noble now manages bookstore operations. Aside from the third-story Starbucks CafÃ© and computer store, customers may notice other recent — albeit subtler — changes effected since management changed hands. Customers can purchase or use Barnes and Noble gift cards at the campus bookstore.
Mack said that most of the store’s earnings go the publisher (about 75 percent) and that the store still tries to offer “the lowest price that they can” given a book’s standard national price. He said the key to keeping prices low is selling to and buying books back from USF students and other campuses. Unfortunately for students, though, the bookstore no longer offers them “Double the Difference.”
The in-the-middle Bookstore
Gray’s College Bookstore, two miles west of campus, claims it offers the “Best Services, Best Prices” for new and used books. Like Books and More, Gray’s offers look-up services for walk-in students, whether they come in knowing the name of the course, book or author. When asked why he shopped at Gray’s, O.J. Sheppard, a sophomore studying pharmacy, answered, “I don’t know … because everybody convinced me to. Gray’s bookstore is cheaper, too.”
Yet, compared to the prices of new books at both Books and More and USF Tampa Bookstores, “sometimes…we are beat,” staff member Mike Manzelmann said.
As for financial aid, Gray’s financial deferment policy holds the personal checks of customers who might be waiting for financial aid to come through so that students can get their books. “Some people will come in with certain problems, and we just try to work with them,” Manzelmann said.
For the credit card-carrying student and a $5 deposit, the online reservation option requests a class list and a “new or used” textbook preference. The bookstore calls the customer back with the total cost and in the arrival date of their books. Books are reserved until the first day of classes, and the $5 fee is refunded upon pick-up.
Sheppard joked that his devotion to the bookstore was due to an “act of charity” by the store:
“I actually got a free shirt,” he said.
However, Sheppard buys the rest of his school supplies at Wal-Mart.
“I would never get my supplies from there (Gray’s) because they’re too high (in price). I don’t even look in there.”
For students involved in Greek life, other USF student organizations or even orientation leaders, Gray’s RA’s Stars program offers 5 percent discounts (given at the semester’s end) on store merchandise to participating organizations’ leaders. Gray’s offers a new, unique collection of hanging “rustic Greek signs,” which are custom-made to sport various symbols of the student organizations. “I’m trying to expand (the selection),” said Creighton Travis Green, the bookstore’s Greek supervisor.
The Independent Bookstore
Students searching for class-required textbooks, study guides and lab books probably won’t find them inside Just Books, Inc.–the quaint used bookstore located just west of 22nd St. and Fletcher. Two-and-a-half miles from campus and tucked halfway between Gray’s and Books and More sits “The Largest Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection in the State of Florida.”
For the academic preparing for a semester of English, foreign language, history or art classes, the small, self-advertised “largest used bookstore in Tampa” offers the “largest classic literature selection in Tampa.” Both paper and hardcover versions of major and lesser-known Western and European literature, poetry and philosophy line shelves. History books and biographies offer substantial supplemental readings for students looking to understand events and people in a different light or in more detail than basic textbooks can lend.
“We take care of the young people … and try to get what the student needs,” said Carl Jacoby, of Just Books, Inc.
Customers can pay prices half or less than half of what can be found at larger, local bookstores for a used but “first-class” product. Books are cleaned and packaged before they are shelved. Every book I flipped through was sturdy–no rips, no tears and no water damage.
Just Books, Inc. offers neither refunds nor extended hours at the beginning of the semester. Jacoby also could not produce a required book list with a class schedule at the click of a computer mouse. However, Jacoby said they know exactly where everything was.
“We don’t wanna be high-tech. We just wanna be nice and homey and folksy,” he said.
One customer who walked in to pick up the copies of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Gilgamesh” and “The Martian Chronicles” she had reserved over the phone said, “I never knew this was in here. This is great!”
For individuals looking for the classics at cheap prices and a cozy atmosphere in which to browse and read, Just Books, Inc. works just fine.
All three major stores offer to buy back textbooks from students for up to 50 percent of the book’s selling price if a USF professor will be using the book again.
At the semester’s end, Books and More will pay participating student organizations 7.5 percent of a book’s selling price when its members sell their books back to the store. The Buyback Rebate program is in addition to the store’s Sponsorship Program.
Prime buyback time is at the semester’s end, which means right after finals. Books with water damage, torn or missing pages, excessive highlighting or defective books with used CDs or study guides may or may not be bought back at reduced prices. USF Bookstore shoppers who qualify/pay for textbooks with financial aid (through BAPP) may also sell books back.
Gray’s College Bookstore has advice for people looking to receive some money back.
“Treat the book so you’d wanna buy it. Don’t try to trick us by putting a different CD in there. We check.”
Others suggest investing in book covers, whether store-bought or paper bag. The advice is to be creative and use multi-colored Post-it notes and tabs to mark pages.
Books and More’s policy states, “If you wouldn’t buy it, chances are we won’t either.”
USF Tampa, Gray’s College and Books and More all offer similar refund policies: most merchandise, with its proper receipt, may be fully refunded within the first two weeks of both fall and spring semester classes.
In the end (from the reporter’s perspective)
After searching for and comparing prices of textbooks and readings required by four of my five scheduled classes at five local bookstores, this is what I found:
Books and More carried six out of the eight items I needed and offered used and new prices for all but one. In general, used prices were about 10 percent cheaper than the USF Tampa Bookstore’s used prices, while new prices were about 18 percent cheaper than the new prices at Gray’s.
Gray’s College Bookstore sold seven out of the eight texts and supplements available at used prices about 5 percent less than those of the USF Tampa Bookstore, while new prices were about 8 percent more than the on-campus bookstore.
The USF Tampa Bookstore carried all of my required readings, including the elusive text custom-published through the university, and, therefore, not available at the other bookstores.
Overall, the USF Tampa Bookstore offered the widest selection and variety of USF logo apparel, accessories and textbook merchandise. However, its prices of both used textbooks and USF apparel generally proved to be the most expensive out of those checked.
Individuals considering ordering online should consider the time it takes–anywhere from two business days to two weeks–for a seller to respond to and ship the purchase to the online buyer.
Tips From a Seasoned Students
By the time some students have it all figured out, graduation is three months away and they have accumulated piles of various textbooks that have been deemed obsolete or unusable by pages of color-coated highlighting and two-semester-old copyright dates.
Jean Paul Aliaga took more than 10 years to get his degree in electrical engineering. A recent USF graduate, Aliaga has studied at three different schools, including University of Florida, University of Central Florida and USF.
Before buying a textbook, Aliaga said he often evaluated for himself how much he might actually need or use a class “required” textbook. He purchased the book from the bookstore. Aglia read, skimmed through and brought the book to the first several days of class before the end of the refund period. He observed how often the professor or the lecture referenced it and how well the book helped him–the student–to understand and learn the material.
If he felt he could get by without the book or just as well with an older, less expensive edition, Aliaga would not buy the book.
“Engineering books are very expensive, like $100,” he said.
For example, one such class required a $110 textbook.
“I didn’t buy the book, but I just paid attention, and I got an A in the class,” Aliaga said. “It had to be a very good book for me to keep,” he added.
Aliaga additionally advised communicating and exchanging books with friends or peers who took the same class–swapping books for a semester or for keeps.
“Talk to the people who took the class the semester before, they’re usually too lazy to sell the books back. Some friends buy over the internet,” he said.
Even borrow from your professor. Depending on the professor-student relationship, Aliaga said most instructors have an extra copy they are willing to lend.
“For the labs, don’t even buy the books,” he advises.
According to Aliaga, some teachers allow students to photocopy blank workbooks from their peers to work on.
Many books’ older editions can be found in the library. Although the library “[does] not usually buy textbooks,” students may find the information in the book’s older version virtually unchanged and sufficient, said Merilyn Burke the head of Access Services for the USF Tampa Library.
Learning a subject through the words or eyes of various authors/perspectives can break the monotony of reading a single textbook. Supplemental readings, such as Victor Hugo’s Les MisÃ©rables while studying the French Revolution or looking at various medical journals for biology and chemistry students can help the reader better visualize, organize or put into context notes and lectures’ worth of dates, facts and figures.
“We have a million volumes, just about,” Burke said.
If the USF Tampa library does not currently have an item, it can be requested and loaned from another library for a limited time at little or no charge to the student ID-carrying student. This includes copies of articles that are mailed straight to the computer user’s desktop.
From e-books to scientific journals to Special Collections on the fourth floor, the library offers employees specializing in various areas of study to help library users narrow down and find what they are looking for.
While library users may relish the freedom of not having to purchase a semester’s worth of books, late fees ($.25/day) for overdue items can catch a student off-guard. Paying for lost or damaged books can be even more expensive. Students forget about such fines until they are blocked from ordering a transcript or other privileges.
“Our job is not so much to collect fines, but to get the books back so other people can use them,” Burke said. “The library does not collect fines less than a dollar. It’s too much work.”
Aliaga, on the other hand, saves what money he can, purchasing basic pens, pencils and paper at places like the Dollar Store, Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart.
When he did buy textbooks, Aliaga said he shopped at Gray’s because he “could get used books for a lower rate (and) usually…found everything.