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The McGill Bookstore reaches out to community for feedback

Textbook prices major concern for students

On November 4, the McGill Bookstore placed “mood boards” around campus: large, blank whiteboards on which students could write comments and feedback on the Bookstore, under prompts such as “My bookstore would be better if…” The boards were placed in the SSMU cafeteria, Leacock, Stewart Biology, the Redpath library, and the Macdonald Campus and McTavish bookstores.

Come 2016, the building currently occupied by the McGill Bookstore will house the Desautels Faculty of Management’s MBA program. The Bookstore has not yet found a new location, but has continued to expand its online marketing. Jason Kack, the general manager of the McGill Bookstore, dismissed rumours that the Bookstore will be permanently closing its physical location and moving all sales exclusively online.

“There is no thought of closing the physical location of the Bookstore. In fact, we are looking to expand it, and have multiple locations. If anything, it will grow,” said Kack in an interview with The Daily.

Seeking community feedback

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) President Kareem Ibrahim told The Daily that he is excited that the Bookstore is “reaching out to students,” considering McGill’s history of forgoing student consultation, such as in the 2010 closure of the Architecture Café.

“Consultation is also always something that groups struggle with. […] We’ve had SSMU struggle with it, and admin also does,” explained Ibrahim.

When asked about the success of the mood board initiative, Ibrahim noted that “the boards seem to be pretty full.”

“They are covered with feedback. I know it is obviously not the perfect form of consultation, that’s why there has to be multiple avenues. […] But I think it is good, just to start [getting] out the message to students that the bookstore wants to know what you want.”

“Consultation is also always something that groups struggle with. […] We’ve had SSMU struggle with it, and admin also does.”

Evan Vassallo, a U3 Software Engineering student, told The Daily that he thinks the mood boards are “a great way to get […] feedback from students, to get new ideas from students.”

“I feel the whiteboards really grab attention in a really busy university setting where people are moving around. […] It allows people to take ten seconds out of their day to think about how [McGill’s services] could be improved.”

When asked about his own ideas for improvements, Vassallo cited the Bookstore’s inefficient use of space, saying, “when I was in the space last [time], the upper levels seemed to be sparse. There wasn’t much there.”

Kack noted that due to limited real estate in Montreal and on campus, whatever space the Bookstore ends up relocating to will likely be smaller.

“This building is 40,000 square feet, [that kind of space] doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he commented. “So we’ll have to be much more efficient when it comes to what our product is, what we’re displaying, and the experience with the customer.”

Financial accessibility

According to Kack, the Bookstore began renting out textbooks in 2011 and selling online course packs in 2013. Kack explained to The Daily that the Bookstore’s push for online marketing is part of an attempt to make academic material more accessible for students.

“Now all of our course packs are available digitally, and are cheaper as a consequence,” said Kack.

“Something that is relatively new is the concept of book rentals,” he continued. “That’s been gaining a lot of momentum [… because] you’re getting the guaranteed buyback upfront.” However, the prices of used, rented, and digital textbooks are all contingent on the price of the newest print edition.

According to a 2013 report by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), from 2002 to 2012 the cost of buying textbooks increased by 82 per cent, while overall consumer prices grew by just 28 per cent. The exorbitant prices of textbooks make them inaccessible to many students with financial constraints.

“‘Let’s see, should we give our bookstore a really boring, generic name or use a slave owner’s name instead? Decisions, decisions…’”

In response, students have found ways to circumvent these extortionate prices, from scanning and illegally sharing PDFs between friends to torrenting textbooks. While some students do so as a matter of financial necessity, others refuse to pay on principle. Some have complained that professors may require their students to purchase the newest, priciest versions of textbooks, often authored by the professors themselves.

The GAO report noted that “used textbook prices are directly linked to new textbook prices in that retailers typically offer used books for about 75 per cent of the new, print price.”

“Similarly, digital textbooks and textbook rentals are generally offered at a discount based on the new, print price. Thus, while students may be able to find lower-priced options, increasing prices for new, print books will likely lead to similar price increases for other related course materials,” the report qualified.

“It needs to be understood [that] when it comes to textbooks, we do not determine the price. The price is set by the publisher,” Kack explained. “Being a self-funded part of McGill means that all of our operations, we pay McGill for. Everything down to getting the trash removed, […] we pay a fee back to McGill […] to pay for other programs, including student life and learning.”

Rebranding the Bookstore

In a post published on the McGill University Bookstore Facebook page on November 18, it was announced that the Bookstore will be changing its name in addition to changing its location.

“We also want our name to evoke our legacy and heritage, while describing a contemporary space where our community can find a variety of products and services,” the post stated.

“Le James” and “Magasin General Store” were the two options presented for rebranding, and students were encouraged to comment on the post with their preferred name.

“Let’s see, should we give our bookstore a really boring, generic name or use a slave owner’s name instead?”

Former student Guillaume Pilote commented on the post, “Let’s see, should we give our bookstore a really boring, generic name or use a slave owner’s name instead? Decisions, decisions…”

Kack admitted that there has been some initial resistance to the rebranding of the Bookstore.

“The idea of why we are looking to change the direction of the name and our brand, to some people it’s unthinkable. So we’re going to have to work with all of that,” said Kack. “But the way I see it, if people are emotional about it, it means they care. That to me is a victory far beyond any negative or positive feedback.”

Ibrahim says that the Bookstore is only one McGill institution that will be looking for student feedback in coming months. “We want people to know, number one, that the Bookstore wants to talk with them, but we also want to facilitate communication between students and other parts of campus that want to know what their thoughts are,” he said.