By Doug Ward
On a recent trip to Amherst, Mass., I strolled through the University of Massachusetts campus looking for a bookstore.
There was not a book to be found, at least outside the 30-story library. A technology shop, yes. A natural foods store, yes. A pastry counter, yes. A university apparel store, of course. But a bookstore? For that, you have to travel a mile or so to the Amherst town center.
UMass got rid of its physical campus bookstore three years ago. Instead, it has a wall of lockers and a desk staffed by Amazon. As part of a five-year contract the university signed with Amazon, students and faculty can buy textbooks online and have them shipped free to campus and nearby ZIP codes in a day, according to the university news service. (At least the contract was supposed to last five years. More about that shortly.)
The decision to eliminate a physical bookstore wasn’t popular among many students and faculty members, the Greenfield Recorder reported. Some students complained about Amazon’s business practices. Some instructors didn’t like submitting their textbook selections to Amazon rather than to a campus bookstore. And Amazon is never popular among local merchants.
A few other colleges and universities have also eliminated their campus stores, including Purdue, Stony Brook, and Queens College. Others have kept their stores but allowed Amazon to install storefronts with lockers for one-day delivery. Amazon has pickup sites at 30 colleges and universities.
One of the advantages universities cite for these arrangements is lower costs to students. At least that’s the plan. The university doesn’t have to devote storage space to books, and Amazon’s enormous size allows it to provide the benefit of scale and convenience. Amazon also pays the universities a commission on sales or rent for campus space. Amazon guaranteed UMass commissions of $1.45 million over three years, according to the Greenfield Recorder.
Cost is no trivial matter as state support keeps declining and the individual costs of college keeps rising. UMass said its deal with Amazon was expected to save students $380 a year on textbook purchases, although the The Massachusetts Daily Collegian said students found that the savings were considerably less, especially because the free shipping did not apply to used books.
Those arrangements also don’t take into account the efforts that campus bookstores make to assist students. The KU Bookstore, for instance, has created an online price comparison tool to help students make decisions. It also works with KU Libraries, faculty and staff members to make open educational resources more readily available. And it sends all its profits back to KU through donations to campus programs and organizations.
Each campus bookstore has a different business model, but the money that Amazon promises to universities is increasingly difficult to pass up. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Laurent Heller, the vice chancellor for finance and administration cited decreased state funding as one reason the university found a deal with Amazon attractive, according to The Daily Cardinal.
“We need to find creative ways to gain revenue that goes along with our mission,” Heller was quoted as saying.
Those revenues don’t come without risk, though. At UMass, Amazon is ending its five-year contract after three years, according to the Recorder. That has left the university scrambling to find a book supplier for its bookstoreless campus starting next year.
I have mixed feelings about all this. I’m not anti-Amazon, and I certainly understand the trend toward electronic course materials and the delivery of books. Libraries have been moving in the same direction, repurposing stacks as collaborative space for students and moving many physical books to remote sites. (This isn’t always a smooth process either.) The growth of digital resources also reduces the need for physical space.
I’m certainly part of this trend. I do most of my reading electronically these days. With an e-book reader and a tablet, I read much more than I did before. The digital devices also make life easier. I can take and store notes without the need for physical filing cabinets, and retrieve them much more easily and accurately than if they were in paper form. The digital format also reduces space and makes large amounts of information much more portable.
Campuses definitely lose an important element when a bookstore goes away, though. As I walked through the UMass campus, the lack of a college bookstore felt disorienting. It was as if something vital had been removed. Without it, there was no physical location for getting a feel for the intellectual life of the campus, no single place for perusing course titles or picking up new ideas from interesting classes and books that instructors had chosen. Without a bookstore, the campus felt somehow more remote, more inaccessible.
I’ve written before about universities’ shift toward consumerism, about the way they have diminished the importance of learning by promoting themselves as carefree places with endless conveniences, cheering sports fans, and smiling students who seem to have little to do but stroll together across leafy campuses. The loss of campus bookstores fits into that trend, further hiding the intellectual life – the soul of higher education – behind the gloss of consumer appeal.
If we are to preserve that intellectual core, we need to work harder at making it more visible, especially for potential students and for the public. Otherwise, a campus becomes just a collection of buildings — buildings that at a growing number of universities lack a bookstore.
Fort Hays State University is taking a non-Amazon approach to remaking its bookstore. The university has entered into partnerships with Akademos, a company that provides an online portal for textbook sales; and indiCo, an arm of the National Association of College Stores that will handle general merchandise for the store. … A University of Maryland study supports the idea of using virtual reality for learning, with researchers finding that participants had better recall of information from a virtual environment than from a desktop computer, Campus Technology reports. … A survey by the New America Foundation finds that support for higher education may not be as politically divided as surveys last year suggested, Inside Higher Ed reports. Even so, respondents were much more supportive of colleges and universities near them than they were of higher education in general.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.