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When English Professor Stephen L. Burt ’94 was an undergraduate at the College, his choices about where to purchase textbooks were largely limited to Harvard Square. Burt, like the majority of Harvard students at the time, used the Coop to buy all his coursebooks each semester.
Since the rise of internet sales, Harvard Square has seen a decrease in the number of bookstores, but the Coop still remains the sole seller of official textbooks for Harvard University classes, except for foreign books. After a significant decrease in textbook sales and criticism from students about high prices, the Coop is now debating what role it should take. The Coop released a survey on Wednesday to all members asking this question.
“We see this time as an inflection point. We want to see what opportunities there are to better serve as we go forward,” says Jeremiah P. Murphy, Jr., the president of the Coop. “We’re putting everything on the table.”
HISTORY OF THE COOP
In 1882, students in conjunction with University professors tired of Harvard Square businesses’ inflated prices, and decided to pool their capital together to buy books and supplies for students cheaply and with little overhead.
“The University did not provide those materials and students thought maybe we can provide this function and do it better collectively,” Murphy says.
The Coop continues to run as an independent entity from the University, collecting all information from Harvard courses directly from faculty, according to Harvard’s Director of News and Media Relations Kevin Galvin.
The Coop operates as a cooperative society, which means it is owned by its members and its structure its predicated on a rebate that has certain tax implications. The Coop has over 55,000 members, including 22,000 students from Harvard and MIT, who pay $1 to receive a membership card.
“Going in to the Coop as a freshmen and getting my Coop card printed out for me with my name on it was like I was initiated into being at Harvard,” says Elly Brinkley ’13-14.
The Coop used to serve as a department store and had its own pharmacy, tailor, and dry cleaning services when the Square was less competitive. But its foundation was always selling books.
However, the Coop has altered its product offerings in the last few decades. After the 1970s, when the college began to enroll women, the Coop no longer catered its sales only to men. In the 1980s, more competition came to Harvard Square, causing the store to drop out of the music industry when it had once been the largest seller in Harvard Square. In the 1990s, the Coop focused on being an academic bookstore that sells some department supplies.
In 1995, the Coop entered into an agreement with Barnes & Noble that made the company its manager of operations. Before the 1960s, the Coop’s board, comprised of students, non-students, and a president, made the decisions on what the store sold until they hired professional managers.
“The board sets the policy, direction, and strategy, and the managers implement it,” Murphy says.
While the Coop is still the brand, the software that sells and keeps tracks of the books is Barnes & Noble and the sales people are Barnes & Noble employees.
Through this agreement, the Coop has been able to expand its tradebook business and better organize business, according to Murphy.
As the main provider of textbooks for the University, the Coop collects the International Standard Book Numbers for all books. This service has been required of all schools that receive federal financial assistance, as part of a 2008 amendment in the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
“Because the Coop is the primary purveyor of textbooks to Harvard students, the University did enter into an agreement with the Coop last year to ensure compliance with a new federal mandate requiring better disclosure of textbook pricing information to students,” Galvin says.
Providing the ISBN numbers allows students to easily purchase their books at other stores or online. In 2007, a group of Harvard students protested for the Coop to publicize the ISBN list for Harvard courses. When the Coop refused, the students went to the store to copy names and ISBNs.
“We didn’t have a problem with them doing it, but just don’t come here in the middle of rush period,” Murphy says.
The Coop now provides this service for the University for free.
Students and professors have criticized the Coop for having high textbook prices. Murphy acknowledged the markup, explaining that the books must be priced higher than in internet sales to cover overhead costs.
“We think the price is fair relative to the cost and our value. Is it competitive to what we find online? No, you can always find a book cheaper somewhere,” Murphy says.
The Coop experimented with selling textbooks at cost in the spring semester of last year, but saw no significant increase in purchases.
“It’s a scandal. I buy textbooks, which are very specific and research-oriented, and they are much cheaper. I don’t understand why textbooks can be so expensive. It’s a mystery to me,” says Oliver R. Knill, who teaches Math 21a.
While some students refuse to purchase books from the Coop, others value the store for its location.
Brinkley sees value in going to the Coop and seeing all the books in one place.
“I’ll go to the Coop and look at what books there are as a way of shopping,” Brinkley says.
Due to Harvard’s shopping week, many students do not know their class schedule until study card day. The proximity of the Coop allows students to buy their books immediately, instead of waiting for shipping from an online source.
“If I want to get started on my reading early, I purchase the books immediately there. I do believe it has high prices, but I’m willing to pay the premium there,” says Patrick M. Duffy ’12-13.
Some courses, including Life Sciences 2: Evolutionary Human Physiology and Anatomy, require books that are custom made by professors with only select chapters. These books are only available at the Coop.
This fall, the Coop began renting textbooks. Across the college textbook industry, bookstores are offering more options to students, including new, used, digital, and most recently, rented materials.
Aleah C. Bowie ’13 rented a book for Anthropology 1010: The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods and Reasoning this year.
“Unless you really want to save a book, it’s really the best option,” Bowie says.
Even before the Coop began renting, Bowie took advantage of online renting websites.
Instead of selling the book back to the Coop as used, students can rent it at about 50 percent of the retail price, according to Murphy.
The issue with renting textbooks is that in order to meet profit margins, books must be rented multiple times, which can be a problem when new editions are frequently released.
Approximately 35 to 40 percent of the books at the Coop can be rented, and approximately 20 to 25 percent can be purchased as used, according to Murphy.
Murphy sees the benefit of with working with Barnes & Noble on the rented books program. Barnes & Noble’s partnership with universities across the U.S. means that if a Harvard coursebook is only assigned for one year, Barnes & Noble can transfer the books to another store for future rentals.
The Coop pays all profits from member purchases after taxes and operating expenses to its members. Each year, the rebate changes. There are years when the Coop does not have a rebate. This year, the rebate is 8.5 percent after receiving over $42,000,000 in annual revenues.
However, many students do not pick up their rebate checks and fail to take the discount of the rebate into consideration.
“When you’re buying the book, you don’t think about the rebate. I completely forget about it until they send it,” Bowie says.
“The concept of a rebate is confusing and not well communicated, and we want to address that. We’ve been questioning what is the best value. We’ve had a rebate since the founding, but maybe we should have different discount structure,” Murphy says.
The Coop is not the only provider of textbooks for the University. Schoenhof’s provides all foreign books.
“This relationship was like a gentlemen’s agreement. Because we were a niche, the University decided that we would be the one who provided foreign language course books,” says Store Manager Eleni Sacre.
Schoenof’s opened in 1856 and has remained a small, family-owned business that provides coursebooks based on professors’ requests. The store caters to students by offering a 20 percent discount on European publications and 10 percent discount on domestic publications.
While the number of bookstores in the Square has decreased from 26 to 3 in the most recent decades, the Harvard Book Store is another milestone bookstore, founded in 1932. Although the store does not keep many textbooks in stock, it will order any book that a student requests.
“We don’t in a classical sense provides textbooks to students. We’ve always viewed the Coop as that place,” says Harvard Book Store Owner Jeffrey Mayersohn ’73.
The bookstore sells standard literature, which can often be seen as the coursebooks for English classes. As a humanities concentrator, Brinkley can purchase the majority of her coursebooks at the Harvard Book Store to support local business.
While the Coop sells tradebooks too, Mayersohn sees it as a friendly competition. The Harvard Book Store also does custom printing through their bookmaking machine dubbed Paige M. Gutenborg.
Mayersohn says some professors use the machine to print coursepacks and students have printed their theses or their own novels.
Professor of Armenian Culture James R. Russell uses the machine to print specialized Armenian materials that are not longer copywrited for his courses. The Harvard Book Store also has access to all the scanned books from Widener for print.
Brinkley noted that the Harvard Book Store could never replace the Coop in textbook sales since it could not handle the volume as a small independent store.
“Problems are inherent in big university bookstores. The alternative to the Coop is Amazon. There just isn’t a viable independent,” Brinkley says.
Regardless of the changes the Coop makes, students and professors see a purpose in having the Coop and other bookstores.
While libraries also offer some course books, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Jeff W. Lichtman says he sees an advantage to having a bookstore.
“In a library, not all the textbooks in the same fields are in the same place. There’s an advantage to seeing that and being able to purchase new editions,” Lichtman says.
“The Coop serves multiple purposes. It provides a place of social gathering with an academic focus and scholarly atmosphere,” says Russell, who often does work at the Coop Café.
The Coop’s board will meet again in December to discuss a plan of action.
—Staff writer Kerry M. Flynn can be reached at email@example.com.
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