Most of us, me included, have probably bought some of our books from the University Co-op during the rush of the first week of classes. Some may have even purchased UT merchandise, as I have done several times when friends in Argentina or Brazil have asked for souvenirs. This mixture of school spirit and textbook sales has made the Co-op an icon for current, former and future UT students. It benefits from the UT brand even if it receives no direct funding from the University. Enter the Co-op store and gaze at three floors of sheer school spirit: khakis with UT logos that are more expensive than plain khakis, Longhorn regalia and a kids’ section for future Longhorns. School spirit has its place, but the Co-op creates an image problem by not offering any books beyond those textbooks required for classes down in the basement.
The Co-op had a separate shelf for faculty publications and University of Texas Press several years ago, but that section has disappeared. Why is that? Why did the Co-op, which is supposed to be at the service of the University, pull the books? When I talked to George Mitchell, the president and CEO of the Co-op, he gave a simple answer: The books were not profitable.
In Mitchell’s defense, America has a bookstore problem. This is largely due to the rise of online distribution centers such as Amazon.com, which benefits from the so-called “long tail effect.” This means online distributors do not depend on local markets or storefronts, instead selling a few copies of even the most obscure books to worldwide audiences at a low cost. Barnes & Nobles leased the space the Co-op used to use for trade books, but according to Mitchell, it did not do any better than the Co-op and the location was subsequently closed. In the last year Borders, another national bookstore chain, went out of business. Michael Kiely, director of course materials for the Co-op, made note of this trend, telling me that he used to work at a Colloquium Bookstore in San Marcos that has since closed.
The Co-op has not escaped the nationwide trend. According to Mitchell, textbook sales have dropped from $26.7 million to $13.7 million in the last five years. This effect has cut into the Co-op’s normal textbook sales, which used to account for the majority of sales. Now they account for only 40 percent of all sales as opposed to 52 percent for licensed merchandise. But in the case of the Co-op, other oft-cited culprits such as book rentals and e-books in general have not yet cut into Co-op price sales. When I asked Kiely which books sold well outside of regular textbooks, he showed me “DKR: The Royal Scrapbook,” which eulogized the legendary football coach, and told me, “I don’t have the exact numbers, but it sold well during the Christmas season.” Study aids also fare well.
Do I blame the Co-op for prioritizing textbooks over trade books? No. But the Co-op should keep in mind that its function is not merely to sell what is profitable, but also to serve the UT community and promote a positive attitude toward education. Merchandising should supplement, not replace, this effort.
There are some things that the Co-op is doing to promote educational initiatives. The Mitchell and Granof Awards for students who conduct exemplary research encourage and reward quality academic production from UT students, and the Hamilton Book Award rewards prolific scholars from our University as well. However, the Co-op should go further. If the Co-op has a surplus of faculty publications in its inventory, why not make a separate display or shelf that could highlight certain scholarly work and help sell off some of those extra copies? Why not dedicate a specific section to showcase the quality academic research that receives the aforementioned awards and not just UT’s athletic conquests?
As an emblematic institution in the UT community, the Co-op should seek innovative ways to encourage the reading culture on campus while remaining conscious of financial limitations. Without balanced marketing, the Coop risks sending the message that UT stands not for the pursuit of knowledge but only for the football field.
Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.