Many Portland State professors choose to order books for their classes through alternative community bookstores. While this practice has been taking place without event for years, CEO and general manager of the PSU Bookstore Ken Brown filed an official letter of complaint last month against the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and bookseller In Other Words, saying that selling the books out of the WRC violates a clause in the PSU Bookstore’s contract guaranteeing that they are the only bookstore on campus.
Brown also said that requiring students to seek out books at other bookstores is inconvenient and therefore may not the best way to serve students.
“They’re making an active political choice, and I’m OK with that,” Brown said. “However, I think that sometimes people are putting politics before students.”
For nearly 13 years, many women’s studies professors have opted to order books for their classes through In Other Words, a local nonprofit feminist bookstore, rather than the PSU Bookstore. When Portland State Professor Johanna Brenner co-founded In Other Words in 1993 as a bookstore, community center and a forum for women’s voices, book sales to women’s studies students was an essential part of the nonprofit’s business model.
“I would estimate that a quarter to a third of our business is textbook sales,” said Sue Burns, manager of In Other Words.
Burns is one of only two paid employees at the bookstore. With just one and half paid staff positions, In Other Words is largely operated by volunteers. It is one of the only nonprofit feminist bookstores in the country: 10 years ago, there were nearly 200 feminist bookstores in the United States, and now there are only 30.
“The closings happened really quickly, for both financial and political reasons,” Burns said. “Ordering textbooks is a simple way for academic institutions to support what we are doing, and that support keeps us alive.”
The PSU Bookstore, a longtime student cooperative that converted to a nonprofit last summer, tolerated the women’s studies department’s book-buying arrangement with In Other Words for years. Other Portland State professors order books for their classes through alternative community sources such as Laughing Horse Books, a local worker-owned collective specializing in resources for radicals and activists. Typically, representatives from these stores bring books on the first day of classes, and sell them to students from handcarts or temporary table setups. If students miss buying books in class, they must go to the bookstore on their own to make their purchases.
For 11 years, In Other Words volunteers sold books to students off of handcarts. However, in order to reduce the inconvenience to students who are not able to buy books on the first day of class, and to bring more students to its new space on campus, the WRC began setting up a temporary sales space for In Other Words at the beginning of the Fall 2005 quarter. For the first three or four days of each quarter, students can stop by the WRC and buy the books for their Women’s Studies classes.
This is where Brown draws the line.
“In Other Words now has a physical presence in the Women’s Resource Center, which is in violation of the PSU Bookstore’s lease with the university,” Brown said. “Our lease states that the university cannot allow another bookstore to set up on university property.”
“The lease [exclusivity] clause is there for a reason. We invested a hell of a lot of money in this location,” Brown said. The PSU Bookstore is located in the Urban Plaza on S.W. Fifth and Montgomery.
Brown has submitted a letter of complaint regarding the sales space in the WRC to the Office of Business Affairs.
“Up until now, they’ve been setting up a table on the first day of class, and I don’t have a philosophical problem with this,” Brown said.
Dee Wendler, director of business affairs at Portland State, affirms that the PSU Bookstore’s lease prohibits the establishment of another physical bookstore on campus. “We are in the evaluation stage,” Wendler said. “We’re investigating this further, and we will be talking to Ken and Johanna. We’ll examine the lease, and then discuss this with both parties to resolve the issue.”
While he will be content to go back to the old system of in-class sales by alternative booksellers, Brown does have some concerns about professors ordering books through other community sources. “Of course, we would love to have the business. We’re a student-controlled nonprofit. It’s a little odd to me that faculty is going elsewhere for political reasons.”
Brown cited a number of advantages that students have at the PSU Bookstore that they might lose when professors order through other sources. When ordering books, the PSU Bookstore always searches for used copies on the national wholesale market, which it can sell at lower prices to students. According to Brown, the alternative bookstores usually bring only new books to campus, which are more expensive.
Another advantage of the PSU Bookstore is the buyback program, which allows students to sell the books they buy back to the PSU Bookstore at the end of the quarter. “The buyback equation is critical to some students. It’s a way to mitigate the overall cost of textbooks,” Brown said.
Then there is the convenience issue. Many students go to the bookstore at the beginning of the quarter planning to buy all of their books, and some are surprised to find that their professors have ordered books through another source. “We ask that faculty at least let us know if they’ve ordered books or course packets elsewhere, or if there are no text requirements,” Brown said. “That information goes on our shelf and on the web site, so at least students know who to contact.”
Student accounts also present a problem when professors order through alternative sources. Many Portland State students have Veteran Administration (VA) accounts, vocational rehab accounts, corporate reimbursement for books through their employers, or scholarship funds through the PSU Bookstore scholarship program. The PSU Bookstore bills all of these programs directly, while other bookstores may require students to pay out of pocket and submit receipts for reimbursement.
“A lot of vets are living on a shoestring, and they have to pony up for books,” Brown said. “If a student simply doesn’t have the means to buy those books with their own money, the PSU Bookstore has gone to the [alternative] store, paid retail for the book and billed the VA itself, because these are our students. We literally drive over, pay with a credit card, then come back and charge the VA account. There are a lot of students here with these accounts. It seems a little unfair to these students [to order class books through alternative sources].”
Brown said he believes that the PSU Bookstore often gets a bad rap with professors and students because of its relative size, and because of the high prices for textbooks set by publishers. “We’re a small local nonprofit. We’re student-controlled, and we’re putting something back into this campus. We’re just bigger than [the alternative bookstores].”
Brenner argues that most of Brown’s concerns about the community bookstores do not apply to In Other Words. “Most of the books our professors order are not textbooks. Mostly, they are trade paperbacks, which we get for the same price as the PSU Bookstore.”
In Other Words also has a buyback program. “Students can sell their books back to In Other Words, but most don’t. In Other Words seldom have books they wouldn’t buy back,” Brenner said.
In Other Words also has the system in place to charge book purchases to VA accounts.
“A lot of students like supporting In Other Words,” Brenner said. “A handful of students have been inconvenienced, but you have to weigh that against the benefits of the program as a whole. If there had been a big upsurge of anger or disappointment from students, the program wouldn’t have lasted this long.”
As for the controversial book sales space in the WRC, Brenner said, “If the university says we can’t do it, we can’t do it. It seems kind of petty – we don’t sell any more books this way. We’re not taking any more of their business. It’s just more convenient for students this way.”
“Why didn’t they contact me, the Women’s Resource Center and In Other Words first, rather than going to the business administration with a letter of complaint?” asked Brenner. “I hope we can all sit down and talk about this, and work something out.”