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Books are history as campus bookstore goes online

Shops now just retail outlets as texts go digital


    Bowling Green State University's student bookstore no longer carries physical books. The store has been renamed Falcon Outfitters and features a number of apparel and other banded items.

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    The Bowling Green State University bookstore in 1986, was all about textbooks. Today, there’s hardly a book of any sort in sight. Instead, the store carries a large line of clothing and other items with the university logo.

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    Sophomore Caitlin Fannin shops for Christmas presents at the former student bookstore, now Falcon Outfitters, in Bowling Green State University’s Student Union. She still gets her books through the store, but they’re delivered from a warehouse.

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    In 1982, buying textbooks for BGSU classes almost always meant shopping in one of the on-campus or nearby off-campus shops.

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A crush of orange apparel and Falcon-themed gear fill the recently redesigned Bowling Green State University campus store in the student union.

The shop bursts with school spirit. There’s T-shirts and sweatshirts; coffee cups and sippy cups; blankets, clocks, and a bin brimming with Bowling Green’s yellow-beaked mascot in plush toy form.

But when students visited the remodeled store this semester, they found one notably absent college staple: Textbooks.

Gone are the shelves of history and biology books that once populated the store’s second floor, space converted into a career center.

The shop, about half its former 24,000 square feet, now directs students to order textbooks online rather than browsing its banished stacks.

To underscore the closed chapter, the university even dropped “bookstore” from the stop’s title. The sleek, swag-stuffed showroom has been renamed Falcon Outfitters.

More schools are pulling textbooks from campus stores or turning over shop operations to outside retailers as students try to save money by purchasing or renting books from online sites. Professors also are beginning to explore less-expensive options for course material, such as digital or open-source books.

BGSU and Heidelberg University in Tiffin are among universities that no longer stock textbooks in their stores.

Instead, students can place orders online and pick up books once the package is delivered.

The change meant Bowling Green junior Markia Boone walked out of the campus store this semester without her usual armload of books, which she ended up renting from a web-based supplier.

“I went online, because I did come in here to look, and I realized that they changed the store around,” the 21-year-old from Elyria, Ohio, said.

She recently returned to Falcon Outfitters, but not for books.

“I come here to get clothes,” she said.

And mugs. And gifts emblazoned with the school logo.

The redesigned shop offers a larger selection of apparel and clothing sizes, she said.

“I’m going to put my whole entire family in BG stuff,” she said. “Even my little 2-year-old niece has so much BG stuff.”

Stores adapting

Students acquired about five course materials in the fall of 2015, down from six the year before, according to a National Association of College Stores study.

Sixty-five percent of all textbook purchases last fall took place through a campus store. Students also bought books from off-campus bookstores, other students, or online sites and spent an average of $602 on required course materials last school year, the report found.

Some stores are adapting to shifting buying patterns by removing books from the sales floor and offering counter service for students to request or pick up books they have ordered. About 20 percent of roughly 2,200 school-owned and operated bookstores offer only counter service for textbooks, said Elizabeth Riddle, the association’s campus research director.

BGSU decided a career center with interview rooms was a better use of space than stacks of textbooks, said Brad Leigh, executive director for business operations. The reconfigured shop is smaller but has more room for clothing, gifts, and computer and technology equipment.

Students previously ordered books from the store using an online option or plucked volumes directly off the shelves.

This semester, textbook transactions from the campus store moved exclusively online. The site compares the price to buy and rent books from the school to the cost from popular online retailers such as Amazon and Chegg.

If students order through the campus store, BGSU pulls the books from a university warehouse a couple miles from campus and delivers them to a counter at the back of the campus store for students to pick up.

It takes one business day to fulfill an order if the textbook is in the warehouse, said Jeff Nelson, director of bookstores.

Sophomore roommates Tessa Sinclair, 20, of Trenton, Ohio, and Caitlin Fannin, 20, of Urbana, Ohio both got their textbooks through BGSU because they think it’s still the most convenient option.

“I know the book that I’m getting is exactly what I need for my class, and, you know, I’ve ordered books from Amazon and other textbook services like that, and they don’t give me exactly what I need. And then I have to go back and purchase additional things, like supplements,” said Ms. Fannin.

But other students, such as junior Alex Holsinger, looked elsewhere. The 20-year-old from Marion, Ohio, bought most of his first and second-year books from the campus store. This year, he said he only ordered one through BGSU’s web system.

“At that point, if I was going to have to buy it online anyways, Amazon was cheaper,” he said, though he did stop at the store midsemester to shop for a new backpack.

Bowling Green students lost another textbook option earlier this year when the independently run Student Book Exchange closed. Brown paper covers the windows of the orange-awning storefront near campus that for years sold books and apparel.

Mr. Leigh estimates sales at the university store will total $8 million to $8.5 million in revenue this year. A portion of that goes to pay rent and service charges to the university and fund book scholarship programs. The store is projected to produce a net income this year of up to $150,000.

Two years ago, the university sought proposals from companies to run the store, but officials ultimately decided it could do a better job operating its own shop.

Outsourcing shops

Monroe County Community College, Northwest State Community College, and Heidelberg continue to operate their own stores.

The Heidelberg campus store ushered in an online-only textbook ordering system this semester because it isn’t cost effective to run a traditional bookstore, said Hoa Nguyen, vice president for administration and business affairs.

The school outsourced its textbook management to a company that ships books to campus, but still runs a store that mainly sells clothing and logo merchandise.

Many other schools have chosen to outsource bookstore operations in exchange for a cut of the revenue, following a national trend that began in the 1980s and picked up as students began purchasing books online. 

About half of the roughly 4,000 stores represented by the college store association are run by outside companies, association spokesman Jenny Febbo said.

Terra State Community College operated its own bookstore until the end of last month, when the school picked Follett Higher Education Group Inc. to run it.

In 2015, both Tiffin University and Owens Community College stopped running their own stores and chose Follett to manage them.

Lourdes College did so in 2000, and Follett has run the Defiance College store since 2015.

Owens outsourced its bookstore operations because college officials thought Follett, which operates about 1,200 stores, could better serve students, including offering more readily available rentals and faster delivery, said Michael McDonald, the school’s executive director of operations.

Follett also guaranteed Owens a minimum of $1 million a year for the contract’s first four years, with the potential for bigger payments depending on sales, plus other financial perks. Mr. McDonald said the bookstore was not losing money, but the school couldn’t insure it would make that amount operating its own store.

Barnes & Noble College has run the University of Toledo bookstore for more than a decade and the Ohio Northern University bookstore since 2000.

The UT Foundation receives 11 percent commission from bookstore sales, or an annual average of about $300,000 in recent years.

In 2012, the Toledo store moved from the student union to a more publicly accessible location at the corner of Secor Road and Dorr Street. At that time, it added a cafe and greatly expanded its selection of general-interest books, said general manager Colleen Strayer.

A window advertisement touts newly released novels by Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham, not the latest calculus tome. Textbooks are kept on the second floor.

Students still prefer a physical copy of textbooks and would rather rent than buy, Ms. Strayer said.

Mallory Koepke, a 19-year-old from Temperance in her second year at UT, occasionally pops into the bookstore to look around.

She sometimes picks out a book or Japanese graphic novel to read outside of class, but when it comes to finding textbooks she chooses the cheapest route. Usually, she said, that means renting from Amazon.

The Tiffin University store still stocks books and also offers online ordering. School spokesman Lisa Williams said Tiffin has outsourced other operations, and the bookstore is another example of “allowing experts to do what they do best.”

Times are changing, and even those from schools that still stock books in stores say the semester no longer begins with boxes and boxes of texts.

“I remember a day when all the books were on the shelf, and you would walk into the bookstore and you would smell books,” Ms. Williams said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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