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Little Professor Book Center on Court Street in Athens, Ohio.

Bookstores adapt to pandemic, increasing digitization of textbooks

As the majority of Ohio University’s classes are being taught virtually due to COVID-19, many required reading materials are following suit and have been for several years. 

For two of the most popular bookstores on OU’s Athens campus — Little Professor Book Center and College Book Store — the recent onslaught of textbook digitization is affecting their sales in big ways. Even with many students back on campus, both stores are seeing decreased sales from years prior. 

“Since the students have been back, (I’ve) definitely seen an uptick in sales (but) not as many class sales or general readings as I expected,” Nicholas Polsinelli, owner of Little Professor, said.

Gene Armes, general manager at College Book Store, said his store is experiencing similar fluctuations to Little Professor. 

“Business has naturally picked up somewhat with the limited return of students this semester,” Armes said in an email. “We still are at no where near full attendance here on campus so we continue to lag behind historical sales trends and expect to do so for the foreseeable future.”

Armes said Inclusive Access is another explanation for why physical textbook sales have been in freefall in recent years. 

“The by far largest event that has hurt textbook sales on this campus is the introduction of Inclusive Access by Ohio University,” Armes said in an email. “Inclusive Access ... has forced us to make radical changes in what merchandise we offer in our store in order to survive.”

Inclusive Access provides students in participating classes access to their reading materials in a digital format on the first day of their classes, according to OU’s website. Those materials are offered “at a significantly lower price than printed materials.” 

Inclusive Access isn’t the only alternative way students are getting their required reading materials. Even students who wish to purchase physical textbooks are buying them elsewhere, either out of convenience or competitive pricing. Hannah Moore, a freshman studying translational health, is one such student. 

“I have access to all my books online. However, I went ahead and bought my physical textbooks for biology, chemistry, and I tried to buy it for calculus,” Moore said. “I just … can't read the online ones.” 

Moore said she purchased those physical copies through the website from which she had an access code. 

To survive students’ newfound desire to buy textbooks from other sources, both Little Professor and College Book Store are exploring alternative paths for revenue. 

College Book Store sells OU merchandise, including clothing, mugs and keychains. Textbook sales have been waning from College Book Store’s total sales in recent years as other items take their place, Armes said.

The same goes for Little Professor, where class book sales make up about 30% to 40% of its annual revenue. 

“We're really doubling down on the idea that you go to a bookstore for kind of the atmosphere, or the recommendations … for something different, not just to get a book,” Polsinelli said. “Getting a book, you can do that here, it's great, but you come here to get a sense of community.”

Polsinelli has also set aside a portion of his store to showcase the goods of artists as a way of diversifying the store while also giving those artists a small market to sell their items. 

As the pandemic rages on and financial stress tightens around businesses in Athens, bookstores are turning to the community for support. 

“The community itself has really been the engine that has kept the store going,” Polsinelli said. “The community is really the ones that are helping push us forward.”


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