Textbook landscape changes

The Yale Bookstore has seen an uptick in textbook orders now that Labyrinth has closed.
The Yale Bookstore has seen an uptick in textbook orders now that Labyrinth has closed. Photo by Earl Lee.

Students in search of course books this semester have few options in New Haven, but ever more online.

With the closure of Labyrinth Books, the only shop in downtown New Haven that competed with the Yale Bookstore for professors’ book orders, the Barnes & Noble-owned Yale Bookstore is handling an influx of orders from professors who previously used the independent store. As competition in New Haven dries up, three groups of undergraduates have created websites to help their peers find cheaper alternatives to the campus bookstore.

John Shallah, textbook manager at the Yale Bookstore, said he has definitely noticed an increase in professors ordering through his desk since Labyrinth closed, though the change is “not substantial” and the store has been able to accommodate the increase without difficulty. Cliff Simms, co-owner of Labyrinth, which still operates in Princeton, New Jersey, said he did not know how many professors placed textbook orders through the New Haven location before it closed.

Still, some professors are less than happy with the transition. English professor David Kastan said the Yale Bookstore incorrectly ordered the textbooks for his lecture, “Shakespeare: Histories and Tragedies,” acquiring copies of the second volume of the Norton Shakespeare but not of the first. Kastan said the bookstore could not tell him when the copies of the first volume would arrive. General Manager Joe King declined to comment on the error with Kastan’s order.

Director of Undergraduate Studies in Theater Studies Toni Dorfman said in an email that she has had no problems with the Yale Bookstore, but misses the personal attention she received from Martha MacDonald, a former Labyrinth employee.

“Books, whether textbooks or thrillers or Tolstoy short stories, are precious to me — and to almost every other professor on campus,” she wrote. “I would love to be helped again by an experienced and empathic salesperson who can find me what I’m looking for and can suggest more titles, new and old, that she suspects I’d also like.”

Steven Pincus, DUS of History, and Blaine Hudson, assistant DUS of Political Science, said they had not had any problems with the Yale Bookstore.

Shallah said he thinks having all the textbooks at the Yale Bookstore, rather than split with Labyrinth, will ultimately be more convenient for Yale students, who will only have to visit one location. He added that the store is piloting a new textbook rental service this fall, through which students can “borrow” textbooks for a semester, paying 50 percent off the list price at the beginning and giving the book back at the end.

Though the local book industry has narrowed, Yale students are creating new alternatives on the internet. Sean Haufler ’13 and George Tang ’14, two of the students who launched textbook-shopping websites this summer, said they made their sites because they felt the Yale Bookstore had an unfair monopoly, though they added that Labyrinth’s closing did not inspire their projects.

“I don’t think the Yale Bookstore should charge so much more than sites like Amazon,” said Haufler, who created www.booksatyale.com, which compares the Yale Bookstore’s prices with those of new and used books on Amazon.com and Amazon Marketplace. “There’s no reason students should have to pay such high premiums.”

Since Haufler sent an email to Yalies with a link to his site on Aug. 29, he said students using his website have spent over $30,000 on textbooks. He said he estimates these students have saved between $10,000 and $15,000, adding that new books are on average 30 percent cheaper through Amazon.com and Amazon Marketplace than they are in the Yale Bookstore, while used books are about 50 percent cheaper. As of Sunday night, 1,345 textbooks had been purchased through BooksAtYale. Haufler added that the website is available at other colleges, including Harvard and Northwestern (booksatharvard.com and booksatnorthwestern.com, respectively), though these have not been as popular.

Greg Hausheer ’13 and Chris Murphy ’13 are designing another startup for buying textbooks at reduced prices: Booksaver.com, which they founded last spring. The website compares textbook prices from several websites and takes lists of books from Yale’s online course listings, and also includes other features such as a ranked list of the most expensive majors and classes at Yale. If users log in with their Facebook accounts, Booksaver automatically shows what classes their friends are taking.

Hausheer and Murphy won a Yale Entrepreneurial Institute summer fellowship, and over the summer decided to take this year off to expand their business. It is currently available at over 400 schools, though Yale remains of special importance, Hausheer said.

“We’re trying to create a better college experience for students,” Murphy said.

Tang, who said he has already spent $470 on textbooks this semester, founded www.bookzingo.com with three friends from his high school in Hawaii. The site allows students to post their old textbooks online for others at their school to purchase, and is in operation at over a dozen other universities as of this fall, including Harvard and Stanford. Since classes started, Tang said BookZingo has had roughly 125 textbook postings in its Yale division and at least 600 sales across its various campuses. He added that he plans to promote the website further in the coming months and next semester.

Haufler said he earns a “small” commission on books purchased from Amazon using his site, though students do not face any price mark-ups. Tang said he has not earned any profits from BookZingo sales, but he added that the site might host ads in the future.

A student-run textbook initiative that debuted last spring, the Yale College Council-Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project Book Exchange, has grown this semester, according to co-founder Charlie Jaeger ’12. Since opening on Sept. 1, the exchange has raised over $10,000 through the sale of over 200 books. The funds will be donated to New Haven homeless shelters through YHHAP.

Dawn Lu ’14 said that while she has used Amazon in the past, she thought the Yale Bookstore was more convenient because she did not have to wait for her books to be shipped.

Yale Student Financial Services estimates that undergraduates need $3,150 a year for “books and personal expenses.”

Eli Markham contributed reporting.

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