Stories of Strangers

“It’s hard to imagine what a college town would look like without a bookstore”

Amazon@UMass enters its second school year with the university to mixed reaction, announces new locations across nation for 2016.


 

On Tuesday Sept. 15, Blake Simon accidentally ordered The Republic instead of Republic from Amazon for his political science class. It was a mistake that could have left him bookless as required reading piled up.

With the school year now in full swing, the sophomore political science major took advantage of Amazon@UMass’ Free One-Day Shipping to order the correct textbook.  

“One difference between these is that one has the in the title… Everything else is different as well.  It just sucks I’ve already read most of the wrong book,” said the political science major, comparing covers as he leaves the Amazon store.

“I always have a good experience there,” Simon clarified.

Some students cite issues with package pickup.

“I’ve had five books delivered here and I always need help at the customer service desk,” said Mikayla Greaves, a sophomore Japanese major. For some reason, the locker code never seems to work on her smartphone. Even so, she said the process only takes a few minutes and she will continue to use the service.

Students across campus like Simon and Greaves wait until the last second to purchase their textbooks, which may be creating nightmares for merchants. An enormous amount of labor is underway  once a student hits the order button.

According to Deborah Bass, Public Relations Manager at Amazon.com, however, feedback from student and staff is good as they enter their second back-to-school season.

“With students purchasing textbooks, we’re seeing a naturally higher volume of packages,” said Bass.  The lockers are a “great thing” to expedite the pickup process.  When the student is ready for pickup, he or she activates the link from the notification email or checks in at a kiosk to pick up their item at the one of the self-service lockers lining the white walls.  

The center’s open space is interspersed with dark wood and orange lights.  Add a couple of stools and its industrial-chic vibe could pass for a trendy New York City bar.

UMass was the third university to partner with Amazon to create an official bookstore that launched last fall, replacing the Textbook Annex.  Since 2015 Amazon has partnered with 13 universities, Purdue University being the first in Feb. 2015.

Oscar Yang orders computer parts through Amazon@UMass, but never textbooks. Those he finds free PDF versions of online.

“I’d prefer a physical book, but they’re too expensive,” Yang said.

By the early afternoon, the lunch rush has died down at the Amazon@UMass location.  Students wander in and out. Most transactions are handled quietly and without a problem.  One student receives help at the customer service desk.  He received an email saying his book was delivered but it was not there.  The customer service employee explains they need time to process the delivery once it arrives in Amherst.

Winnie Chen works at the Sylvan Residential Service Desk in Cashin Hall. She says the increase in textbook traffic is causing a strain on her small RSD.

“I always advise people to go through the Amazon center. Things are more efficient there,” she said. “We have a manual system of shelves that we try to organize by last name. If it says your package has arrived today, we actually need to go through it today so you won’t get it until tomorrow,” Chen, a mechanical engineering student said.

Once a textbook arrives to its final destination be it the RSD or campus center, the package tracker lets the buyer know it has been delivered. But it still needs to be processed and sorted, which can take a while.

“For me, it’s all about convenience and cost. This semester I bought 13 books for $100 total. I save money by buying them used,” said Robert Hammond, a junior plant and soil science major.  “I never buy textbooks through the Amazon Center. The RSD is a closer walk and more convenient,” he said.  He prefers to buy from the regular Amazon site and ship it to his residential service desk.

Meanwhile downtown, a local bookseller is struggling to compete with the corporate giant.

The Amherst Bookstore is the last of eight bookstores in the college town due to increasing online sales.  

“It’s hard to imagine what a college town would look like without a bookstore.  UMass has done everything it can do to make that happen,” said co-owner and textbook manager Nat Herold of the UMass and Amazon partnership.

The Amherst Bookstore is not the only local business suffering in light of the online textbook market. A local non-profit called Food For Thought Books was forced to close in June 2014 after 38-years in business, after failing to pay rent or payroll for a month.

“Some students come in and say our prices are lower than they have available through the Spire link,” Herold said, citing a Daily Collegian column from last fall that noted textbooks eligible for Amazon@UMass shipping were far more expensive than other copies on the site.

Sites like Amazon, eBay, and BigWords help students locate discounted textbooks. SlugBooks compares the price of the textbook across ten different online sites.  The customer simply searches by ISBN code or book title.

According to Bass, other campuses across the nation will pick up Amazon stores in 2016, including University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Stony Brook University. California State University, Long Beach will open their Amazon center next week.


Allyson Morin can be reached at writtenforstrangers@gmail.com

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