Students wait in line to return books outside the bookstore in Murray Herrick Campus Center. Photo taken February 3, 2010.

How It Works: Stocking the Bookshelves at the St. Thomas Campus Stores

Which smell better, new books or old books? That's heavily debated among book lovers. Some prefer the fresh ink of a crisp new book, others the musty memories of an older, well-loved volume. Luckily, both can be found at the University of St. Thomas Campus Stores.

Students migrate there each semester to purchase or rent textbooks. But who’s behind the offered selections of course materials?

In short, the professors – what they say goes. St. Thomas professors research textbook options and send requests for their selections to the Campus Stores.

“If they ask us to get the book, we get it for them,” Stephen Griffin, the director of campus stores, said. Interventions from the Campus Stores typically only concern the age or price of a book.

The Campus Stores also compare costs between materials. “We buy the most inexpensive books that we can,” Griffin said.

The earlier that professors send in their requests, the more used books the bookshops can obtain for students. Used books are the cheapest, followed by rentals.

“About 65 to 70 percent of our books are rentable now,” Griffin said. “A lot of them are for courses with brand-new books because the wholesalers we go through want them back, or they’re books that have been around forever. [For example], we rent the Bible.”

A perk of renting through the St. Thomas Campus Stores is that students can write and highlight to their hearts’ content.

“As long as the book is in sellable condition, we’ll take it back,” Griffin said.

Because of horror stories students have told him, Griffin warned about renting through places such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. “You rent a book from Amazon, the book has to come back in pristine condition. I mean, there’s no writing in it, there’s no highlighting in it, if the book cover is bent at all they’ll charge you for it, and they charge you full price, so you may buy the book twice,” Griffin said.

Griffin explained that at the St. Thomas stores, if a student wants to keep a book they rented, they are charged the difference between the rental price and what they would have paid for the book new. “So, it’s a better deal,” he said.

More and more professors are even creating their own course packets, in which they can compile chapters or sections from several different books into one booklet.

“They may grab four, five different books and take pieces out of them that they’re going to teach in class. For the students, it’s much cheaper than buying four books – they’re buying one book,” Griffin said.

In those cases professors simply obtain copyright clearance, have the Service Center print everything and then the booklets are ready to sell at the bookstores.

Textbooks for finance, history or political science are switched out often to provide students with the most recent information, whereas subjects such as economics or math may use the same course materials for years. It all depends on how quickly changes happen in a field of study.

When it comes to the required undergraduate course, Theology 101, four books are mainstays in the St. Paul store. The Theology Department chooses the four, and individual professors can supplement other materials of their choosing.

With online venues and commercial bookstores, students have plenty of places to go for their books. Nevertheless, Griffin said the majority of students get some books from the St. Thomas stores. “I think we’ve done a better job being more competitive,” he said.

Students can sell their books back at the end of the semester, contributing to a stockpile of titles just waiting for professors to add to their syllabi the next time.