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The Coop Is Innocent

Upset At the Coop's Prices, a Student Investigates the System Herself

By Sarah Jacoby

As the last possible add-drop dates for classes approach, a few still prowl the aisles at the Coop--some students are scrambling to buy books for classes they've only just joined, some are returning piles of dull novels after giving up on a course and then there are some who visit the bookstore again and again in order to draw out the pain of watching money trickle into the Coop's cavernous pockets. I must confess to belong to this last group of students. I buy only a couple of books at a time, hoping that perhaps next time there will be an unprecedented sale shelf or that maybe I misread that the price of my flimsy paperback textbook is more than $50. I have an irrational expectation that somehow by making numerous visits to the Coop, the grand total of the cost of my books will be less than the cost if I'd just bought them all at one fell swoop. Needless to say my technique is neither wise nor efficient and my only release is to complain bitterly. How dare they charge me $190 for a sourcebook--a pile of Xeroxes stapled together? I won't join them--I won't give them the satisfaction of having my name listed as a Coop member.

Despite the maturity of this tactic, I decided to play "investigative reporter" and discover what's up at the Coop. I wanted answers. Why are sourcebooks so ludicrously overpriced? Why, when other bookstores carry the same books as the Coop, are they often cheaper at the bookstore--even in the same edition as those the Coop carries? For that matter, does the Coop make an extra effort to order the most expensive edition of everything? Rumors float around hinting that Harvard refuses to release book lists to other stores; the word "monopoly" blanches the faces of the multitudes of economics majors. What goes on between the Coop and Harvard? Is it all just a vast conspiracy to empty my bank account any way they can? With these practical concerns in mind I set out to find the truth.

One of my primary issues was my sourcebook. It was revealed that the problem lies not so much with the Coop or even Book Tech, which makes those lovely bound books with tables of contents and page numbers, as with the copyright laws. According to Mo Shepard of Book Tech, 50 percent of sourcebooks costs are copyright fees. Whether such stringent copyright laws are valid or not is debatable, but the laws are enforced and it is understandable to obey them. The other 50 percent is profit and expenses. "We're not making $100 sneakers with slave labor in Taiwan," Mr. Shepard reminded me. Certainly not--the production of Xeroxes of Voltaire's letters for Harvard students in Winchester, Mass. by a well-paid staff isn't really comparable to the practices of particular shoe companies. We accept Mr. Shepard's point, even if it is not entirely clear, but his earnest "We try to do the very best we can" quite sold me.

However, the story does not end there. Once the Coop receives the sourcebooks, it marks them up an additional 30 percent. This seems a little on the steep side, but we can't protest to our neighborhood Coop. The price mark-up is set by Barnes & Nobles, which bought the Coop and now, hand-in-hand with Starbucks, is well on its way to taking over the world. Somehow such a vast corporation seems too formidable to confront about my sourcebook price. So, placated by the copyright law, I let the sourcebook question rest.

But what about all those other books? Besides the sourcebooks there are mounds of books that seem incredibly expensive. As shopping period destroys our calendar, it also exacerbates book costs. Scott Montgomery of the Coop explained it: a certain number of books are ordered for a course based on an estimate (and if the estimating process is at all similar to the one that assigns classes to rooms based on expected enrollment, it seems likely there is a large margin of error here). Everyone decides to take this course. Everyone comes in and buys all the books. The Coop orders more books for all the students who find the class late. Then everyone drops the course and returns the books. Now the Coop has paid for an extra shipment of books and now must return many more than expected. And guess who absorbs the costs, yes, you and me (who, incidentally, would not sacrifice shopping period for reduced prices on books).

Preregistration at other schools allows an accurate number of books to be ordered initially and these extra costs rarely emerge. And then there's the extra staff at the Coop for a full six weeks who are trained to understand Harvard, which is quite costly as one can imagine.

Well then, why are their so few used books? How about that tempting little number for used books on those price labels (that don't exactly correspond to where the books are on the shelf)? Where are those discounted used books? Once again our calendar gets us. The used book market is in December and January, when we take finals. Professors haven't determined syllabi for next semester at that time either. By the time the Coop can get in the game and we want to sell back our books, as those Ec majors can explain, it's just not the time for the Coop to buy and us to sell. Mr. Montgomery sighed into the phone, "Harvard's very unique." Between shopping for classes and our unique calendar it's not easy to accommodate our myriad needs and still have the best prices.

The Coop is not a discount bookstore. Its obligation is to provide all the books the professors need for courses, and it can't afford within our system to offer competitive prices.

The other bookstores that can afford to slash prices aren't being cut out of the loop. Each department and professor can independently decide which bookstore to go through. Most choose the Coop because they have both a commitment and the facilities to provide the 1,000 Bibles, of which another bookstore could be wary. But there is no monopoly in spite of appearances. The Coop solicits book lists and the professors. Perhaps in small classes professors could deal with a different bookstore that could offer lower prices but there isn't a set arrangement with other stores. They could send lists elsewhere as well to create competition. But inevitably other bookstores would confront the same issues as the Coop, faced with reorders and overstocks, and their prices too would rise.

Maybe I was a little too fast to jump on the "trash the Coop" bandwagon. I, who once so proudly declared my nonmembership in the Coop, now toy with the idea of joining. Mo Shepard over at Book Tech proclaimed that books are "Five percent of total education cost, and 80 percent of total education." How many classes do I take because of the syllabus, in spite of the professor's droning tone.... I believe. Maybe books are expensive, maybe they could shave off a few dollars here and there, but in the face of copyright lawsuits and the Harvard "uniqueness" we would never let go of, we might just have to accept higher prices and embrace our former enemy, the Coop.

Sarah B. Jacoby, a sophomore living in Mather House, is a Crimson editor.

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