Commentary  Haven Books: a cheap alternative

From my Bat Cave-like office, the Haven Books manager speaks: my name is Ben Paris, and I was a McGill student for six years, both as an undergraduate and grad student.

What is this Haven Books? We’re a used bookstore with a twist or two: we’re owned by SSMU, mostly sell used textbooks, and work on a consignment system. That means people bring in their old textbooks and set their own price; if the books sell, the sellers get 80 per cent of the price they had set. They can also come and pick the books up at any time, and they don’t have to pay a fee for bringing them to the store. Better than having textbooks lying on your dorm-room or apartment floor. We also sell a few new textbooks and some other useful items, like study guides.

In a sense, Haven (like the Word, our closest parallel store in Montreal) exists in large part as a reaction against both the high prices and short life span of textbooks. Most students seem to have an odd feeling of resentment about paying up to $800 a semester for books they’ll only use once. Buying online, using classifieds, borrowing from the library, and purchasing at used textbook stores are so many ways to avoid spending huge amounts of money for textbooks.

To be fair, textbooks, especially for the sciences, are truly expensive, even for mainstream textbook stores. The high prices are due to several factors, some legitimate: high initial costs, limited markets, narrow appeal, rapid obsolescence; some not: captive market, mandatory purchase, high margins. (Non-marketing majors can tune back in now.)
This all sounds technical, but it means that because textbooks cost a lot to make, and because relatively few people buy them during a short period, to be profitable they must be expensive. However, because students have to buy the textbooks and mainstream textbook stores are interested in a large profit, the stores raise the price even higher. The McGill Bookstore (which just happens to be run by the same people who run Chapters and Indigo) charges a huge markup, sometimes 40 per cent or more on the prices they pay for the texts. True, they have much higher fixed costs than we do at Haven, but Indigo Books & Music would not be running the place unless they were making a nice profit.

Thus, used bookstores that sell textbooks (or books in general) exist in the margins, able to sell used textbooks for far less than what one would pay for new copies. The fact that such stores can obtain their books at a fraction of the cost, coupled with a reduced “need” for profit, means the books can sell for as little as a quarter of their full price. Also, because newer editions of textbooks usually do not drastically differ from older ones, many students can buy the first edition for much less and still have the same material found in the much more costly new edition.

Used bookstores like Haven and the Word are a convenient alternative to the main campus bookstore because they provide much-needed competition. However, Haven in particular operates under difficult conditions, and loses money every year (though it’s been getting better). There are a lot of reasons for that: we have an out-of-the-way location (2070 Aylmer…. Yeah, Google that.), high rent, and really low profit margins on each book. But more than that, we can’t advertise on campus or do anything to annoy the McGill Bookstore for…certain reasons. That’s right: despite the fact that around 95 per cent of our customers are McGill students, we can’t advertise on campus. That’s sort of like Tim Hortons not being able to advertise in Canada.

Still, we and other used bookstores do our best, so before you pay full price for a new textbook, consider your alternatives.

Ben Paris has a BA (’07) in English and History and an MLIS (’09), both from McGill, and is the manager of Haven Books. Write Ben at montreal@havenbooks.ca. Haven Books is located at 2070 Aylmer.