Talking Leaves Falls Silent

The death of the textbook

2851932-285089557_sm_1400790813_sm_14007908131
The Spectrum

The majority of students aren't getting their books off shelves - they're getting them online. Others don't buy them at all.

"I took Anthropology last semester," said Michael Leonardos, a sophomore business major. "I didn't buy the book, and I got an A."

Leonardos has only bought one book in the past year - a communication book for a class that required a specific sheet out of it to pass; he had to buy the whole book just to get it.

The trend is affecting more than class discussions. It's shifting the business strategies of independent booksellers and the university bookstore.

This year - for the first time - Johnathon Welch, who owns Talking Leaves Bookstore on Main Street near South Campus, warned UB faculty that he might no longer be carrying textbooks. He's been ordering and selling textbooks for UB since 1974 - particularly for the English department - when professors like Robert Creeley and Leslie Fiedler taught in the department. But now he's quitting.

"We're either not making money or losing money selling the books now," Welch said. "What will disappear is all of the expense of doing that."

The decline of book sales at Talking Leaves began in 2005 and since then has gone down every semester. Some of that is because there are fewer courses and books ordered each semester, according to Welch.

He said students are no longer interested. He fondly remembers the days when graduate students would stand in line for textbook sales.

He rarely sees that enthusiasm from students anymore. In fact, he hasn't had a line since the mid-'90s.

The traditional business model is no longer viable.

According to a Spectrum poll, 62 percent of students mostly or only buy books online. Seven percent of students buy their books from Talking Leaves.

Welch says he has never made a lot of money, but for the past seven years, sales have been worse than ever. Students just aren't buying from him anymore.

The choice is frustrating UB professors who consider buying from the bookstore an academic rite of passage.

"I understand that in this day and age of Amazon.com and Kindle, it may not be worth it for Talking Leaves to continue serving us in this capacity, but the loss of this service by a small independent bookstore is going to be felt in more ways than one," said Carine Mardorossian, an English professor and director of graduate studies. "Some students will never know what it is like to browse in a serious academic bookstore where bestsellers do not rule the day."

At Talking Leaves, though, Mardorossian's course books - like many others - are contributing Welch's loss of profit.

Welch ordered 22 copies of Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, for one of Mardorossian's courses this semester. He sold three copies - 19 copies have been sitting on his shelf all semester.

The book costs $15 for the book, and Welch paid about $9 for it. The profit made on those books was about $18.

Welch would have to sell 80 percent of what he ordered to make a profit. It probably costs more to bring the book in and send it back - so on that particular class, the bookstore lost money, according to Welch.

Like many independent booksellers, profit held only a partial appeal for Welch when he opened his store.

But the orders are time consuming, and he doesn't like having all those extra books on his shelf. It's become more of a burden for him than a service to others, he said.

While Welch was at UB for graduate school in 1972, he and his friends felt attached to the bookstore. They asked then-owner Kate Selover to carry their course books for them. When she moved to NYC for a bigger bookstore opportunity, he and his friends saved their favorite store by borrowing money from the community and buying it.

"Doing books for classes for us was: 'we're little, we're offbeat, we're not in the main drag, [and] we're not where people are going to find us,'" Welch said. "There are 30,000 students over there, if we can get some of them into the store some of them will come back, and they'll tell their friends and that will work. And it has worked."

Students who go to Talking Leaves - where English Professor Neil Schmitz places all of his orders - browse, wander the shelf aisles, and talk to knowledgeable staff about their literary desires while meeting students from other courses.

"Gertrude Stein and John Milton talk to each other and sometimes fall in love," Schmitz said. "I refuse to believe I'll not be able to place my book orders at Talking Leaves."

However, other professors don't feel the same obligation to Talking Leaves.

Steven Miller, an English professor who began his career at UB in 2004, allows his Criticism class to use an e-book, which is free, instead of the physical copy, which is over $80.

Greg Neumann, the manager of UB's North Campus bookstore, has managed the store since 1990 and has been in the bookstore business since 1984. He has seen a major decline in textbook sales in the last three to four years.

Payroll was cut more than it has been in a while last year due to the decrease in book sales, according to Neumann. He said the bookstore has kept its profitability by making those cuts.

"You try to keep a constant payroll percentage to sales, so when sales go down, your payroll should go down, too," Neumann said.

To compete with Amazon and keep up with market shares, the University Bookstore launched a rental program and began selling digital books.

Digital books are sold through CafeScribe, a mobile app that allows students to purchase and read them. It provides over 40,000 e-book titles, including audiobooks, and over 1,000 textbook titles from most higher education publishers. It also offers access to study aids like CliffsNotes, Bar Charts, and text-specific study guides by chapter, according to the University Bookstore website.

Neumann said the University Bookstore's digital book sales have more than doubled this year, and rental sales went up over 35 percent.

Digital volume overall is still pretty small, so even if they increased there, it's not going to affect the store as much.

Neumann would not provide The Spectrum with the bookstore's losses in sales.

"We lost quite a bit in used books and new books, let's just say that," Neumann said.

Welch argues that the main problem is not the digital and online competition he is up against.

"From my own perspective, it's not that they're going elsewhere to buy the books, it's just that they're not buying the books at all," Welch said. "Anecdotally I hear that all the time from faculty, like: 'Yeah, it's pretty clear to me that they're not buying them because they're coming in and they're not prepared.'"

Welch said that a faculty member, whose name he would not disclose, has taught English at UB for seven years. Seven years ago, at any given time, 75 percent of his students came prepared to his class having read the material. Now this professor feels it's about 30 percent.

Marielle Wakim, a writer on thoughtcatalog.com, wrote a highly-read blog entitled, "How to Succeed In English Lit Without Really Trying," which explains how as an undergraduate, she chose to be an English major because she never had to read the books in order to pass.

Her blog gives advice on how to "bullsh*t" responses, answers, and essays as a student. This method is familiar to UB professors.

"Undergraduate students with years of training in elementary and high school are highly-skilled actors who can turn brightly interested facial expressions on their teachers that conceal total ignorance of the text," Schmitz said.

Patrick Riedy, a senior English major and the communications director of the English Student Association, only buys his books at Talking Leaves. He never buys books online.

"[You build] relationships with people who work in those bookstores if you go there often," Riedy said. "You see them in the bookstore and then you go to readings around town and you see them there, and they recognize you, and they get to know you. You don't get that same interaction or sense of community when you're buying books on Amazon. You might save three or four dollars, but you're not gaining anything more."

Soon, that opportunity may no longer be available to UB students.

"It's not so much that I want to destroy [technology] or I want to turn back the clock, but when I look at that, I tend to look at what's being lost," Welch said. "What's being lost with a lot of technology is a more inter-human connection. A lot of technology displaces us."

Email: news@ubspectrum.com