Pete Lee

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Caveat Emptor: Selling textbooks at Powell's

Despite just having started a job that pays well, I found myself in the unpleasant predicament that befalls non-Trustafarians from time-to-time: the cash flow problem. With the change jar now empty, I needed to find other options.

Like many past and present college students, my IMF (Indigent Monetary Fund) savior appeared in the form of textbooks I didn't necessarily need anymore. Not that I was in a hurry to sell them: my Frank Tirro Jazz and Cultural Anthropology texts were dear friends, with whom I had spent many pleasurable hours of didactic companionship. Like many affairs to remember, our time had come to part, and I resigned myself to the tyranny of the college book buy-back.

Because of my work schedule, I couldn't just pick up and leave. So, I trekked down to Powell's Bookstore. Twice. On consecutive nights. The first book buyer was willing to purchase the book for the princely sum of $31 (N.B.: the book was $90), but needed to see some sort of proof that I was registered at PCC, which I had absolutely none of. The second book buyer, after 10 minutes of waiting, blew me off with a "we need to have student ID," turning a completely deaf ear to the fact that my ID had been stolen, and that I had five pages of proof that I was registered at PCC (including term schedules, bills, and the syllabus for the class)--all better proof than a piece of plastic with my name on it. That's the thing about Powell's: I love shopping there (beats the mega-opoly that is Barnes & Noble), but their staff periodically act as if dealing with us mere mortals is a task below their Divine station. Hey, I'm sorry that their Comparative History of Tribal Basket Weaving degree at Reed didn't pay off, but they don't need to be taking their erudite aggressions out on me.

This irritating experience paid off, however, during my visit to the PCC Sylvania bookstore during lunch. There, my driver's license sufficed, and I was offered a more-reasonable buyback value of $48 for my book. The buyer, after hearing my Powell's experience, lowered her voice and noted that Powell's uses the same book pricing system, but that they take their "cut" and subtract that from the price they're willing to pay.

This offends me, as the entire textbook buying experience is one that has only gotten worse as time goes buy. It seems like the cost of textbooks has doubled in ten years, and on top of that, they're no longer in hardback form. You know, as if students needed even more expenses, on top of tuition which has easily outpaced economic growth and cost-of-living indices. The beatings will continue until education improves...


  • It's hard to read that and not respond sarcastically, Pete. All of what you complained about is par for the course in the real world. Clearly, those Trustafarians don't hold a monopoly on general confusion.

    Wherever businesses buy used goods from the public, they take their cut. It's not a conspiracy or some shameful secret. It's the way they make money. They're doing something for you. You're basically hiring them as middlemen. They're not there to do you favors. Every used record store I visit these days has some handwritten explanation of this system, posted by exasperated employees who are no doubt tired of explaining why the store won't pay what the seller thinks it's worth.

    And as far as the ID thing... man, they get it from both ends. If they don't take ID, they get crime victims coming to them and saying "You bought my freshly stolen property!" If they start requiring school ID for textbooks, they get written up on blogs. I know which one I'd pick, given the choice.

    They don't ask for proper ID because they thought it would be fun. Their policy has no doubt developed over time. I'm sure it's an ass pain. But that's their deal. PCC had a different method, and that's great. One day they'll get screwed too many times, and they'll change their policy to one like Powell's, and then you'll have more to write about.

    Powell's isn't responsible for the general problems with economic growth, inflation, textbook prices, or anything else at the heart of your complaints.

    One more thing. The Reed College comment... poorly chosen, my friend. My experiences with Reed folks places you, not Powell's, much closer to the stereotype. Railing against the general unfairness of life, resentful that the world doesn't drift towards one big trust-festival, and a disinclination to think before complaining... not really a description of the people working at Powell's. And "erudite aggressions"? Well, they did use their blog to post a lengthy, rather whineful complaint about their negative experiences.

    Oh, wait.. that was you.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thursday, August 11, 2005 4:54:00 PM  

  • Your criticism is well-worded, and I appreciate that. I'll respond...

    1) "Par for the course for the real world." A loaded statement, and I'll pull the triggger. Well, the problem with the "real world" is that everyone has a different understanding of what that world should be. One person's real world ("I shouldn't pay any more damn taxes") differs from another ("My kid is very ill, and I don't have any other choice but to go to the ER for medical care"). Not proving anything here--just a thought.

    2) I'm well aware of the fact that businesses buy low and sell high. That's basic free market economics right there. However, there's that whole notion of "ethos" that comes in. For example, my previous employer, Enron, felt that it was completely OK to "do what WASN'T illegal," with little to no consideration for anything but a quick buck. Granted, my irritation at book prices is hardly anything compared to those who lost their pensions when Enron went bankrupt--specifically because it was NOT illegal for the company to raid those funds. So yes, they are not there to do me any favors. But, how far does that go? Is it right for a pharmaceutical companies to decline doing drug research because they "won't make enough money on it?" (That drug would eventually be called Gleevec, with implications for a much larger group of people.) Is it right for those same companies to drag their feet on providing lower-cost AIDS drugs to developing countries?

    Specifically to textbooks, when was the last time you were on food stamps and were trying to make ends meet while going to school? Sadly, I have been in that circumstance, and it sucks. I'm not even a single mother, homeless or mentally ill (well, at least severely). Should those people be denied an education because a company feels that they have the god-given right to charge exorbitant amounts of money on textbooks--in an industry with shrinking competition?

    3) I'm well aware of their ID requirements and why they have them. However, let's be frank here: are they looking for ID because they possess some magical power, or are they looking to authenticate who I am? That little piece of ID from PCC has NO picture, and four digits of a student ID code. That's it. I brought an official tuition bill from PCC with my name and address (they can compare that with my hologram-laminated driver's license), a class syllabus, and a document verifying registration in that class. Considering the fact that various buyers there have purchased textbooks from me (one was ready to the night before) without such requirements, why does he need to be a jackass?

    4) For the record, I do not hold some sort of vendetta against Reed students. One of my dear friends I've known for years is from Reed, and some of the best people I've worked with have graduated from there. Unfortunately, Reed does have a reputation in Portland for being snobbish--don't blame me for the stereotype. Arizona State University is also stereotypically a party college. Neither view affects the essential natures of those schools (one can receive a fine education at both). If you're offended by me generalizing Reed in a negative manner, I feel sorry for the fact that this really chafes you. It shouldn't. It's a school, man, not some sort of ingredient for self-actualization.

    5) Whining? Yes, I do it on my blog. I envy you: you must never have any cause in life whatsoever to feel the need to say or write something that expresses a feeling of being had. Yay. Please let me know if you have a better outlet for this. It can't be all bad: I don't assault, harass, or shoot people--and I still tip well when I'm poor, but needing those one or two inexpensive beers at a bar with people.

    There's also one other difference: when I whine, I own up to it (it should be pretty clear who wrote it). If you're going to criticize, you should be secure enough to at least identify yourself.

    By Blogger PeteLee, at Thursday, August 11, 2005 6:06:00 PM  

  • Ugh. No, really, thanks. Since I'm not making any assertions that won't stand by themselves, I think anonymous is the way to go. Insecurity/cowardice/etc. is not the only reason to post anonymously. I'm not accusing you of anything beyond misdirected griping, so I think we're fine with ideas speaking for themselves.

    "Well, the problem with the "real world" is that everyone has a different understanding of what that world should be."

    The real world, as I was using the term, means the world that is, rather than the one that should be. Everyone can hope and wish for their own changes and versions of what is, but I find it useful to stick to current reality when talking about reality.

    " must never have any cause in life whatsoever to feel the need to say or write something that expresses a feeling of being had. Yay."

    Yeah... well, that's not really got anything to do with anything, least of all my statements, but it's your blog, I guess.

    You come around to saying the bookbuyer was a jackass. No argument there, he did sound like one. But connecting that interaction with school textbook prices and Powell's in general... ehh. You said it yourself -- you had two interactions. One was positive, one negative. When things didn't go your way, a warning is posted about general unfairness. Someone bent the rules for you on the previous night, but no post for that, right?

    If you're wondering, I don't work at Powell's, and I don't live in Portland. I used to, though, and at one time I dealt with the bookbuyers regularly. Not just at Powell's, either, but at worse places.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Friday, August 12, 2005 12:19:00 AM  

  • If I'm reading this correctly....

    1. Pete is telling us that Powell's and PCC use the same system to price books, and Powell's offers you less money for the same book. This pisses Pete off, so he voted with his feet and dollars.

    2. Pete doesn't understand why Powell's needs a PCC ID to sell used college texts to Powell's. I don't either. I don't have a valid student ID, but I have some texts that I need to sell off - can't exactly say that I do much structural geology or palentology these days. But again, Anonymous tells us that they have the right to do this, and they do. (And why is a PCC ID "proper ID" and a ODL isn't when we're talking about selling used books at Powell's? If the cops stop me, ask me where I got the box of textbooks and want some ID, are they going to be happy if I whip out my Blockbuster card?).

    I agree with Anonymous - Powell's has the right to offer me that ever the heck they want to sell them books and can require what kind of ID they want. We live in a (mostly) free country, and we're free to call off the transaction if we don't like the terms.

    I also agree with Pete - vote with your feet and dollars. If you can get a better deal somewhere else, with less hassle, do it. Telling the rest of us about that is a Good Thing, IMHO. Not everything is posted on Froogle.

    I think we all know that the world isn't all roses and happy children. This, apparently, includes selling used textbooks at Powell's.

    By Anonymous pdx_refugee, at Friday, August 12, 2005 10:52:00 AM  

  • Hey what you saying about Reedies?! Many of my dear former classmates do in fact work at Powells or other bookstore establishments. And let me tell you the low pay justifies some occasional bitchiness I think :)

    Besides Reeds reputation is not for snobbiness but for being overly intellectual, pretentious drug users which is different :)

    But I hear ya, I always thought it was a bummer how little you get for resale considering the initial cost. There are online places these days, maybe you can get more on them.

    By Anonymous Brittney, at Thursday, August 18, 2005 10:20:00 PM  

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