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How to Shop for Textbooks in Your College Bookstore

Updated on July 30, 2010

The trouble with college bookstores

It should be simple to buy textbooks for college classes, right? The instructor distributes or posts a syllabus; you head to the college bookstore on your campus and buy the books from your list. What could be easier than that? When you arrive at the store to shop, you realize it is far more challenging than you believed. You are enrolled in Geography 104, for example. In the Geography aisle you find six sections of the class, four of which require different materials. There is a shrink-wrapped package sitting on the shelf above a tag labeled “Required”. Three books are placed to the right of this package, each resting on tags labeled “Optional”. They appear to be the same books that are bundled together and listed as required on the other tag. The tag suggests used books might be available, but they all look new. Other sections require different books entirely, and the shelf tag lists “Staff” as the instructor for each section. You shake your head in disbelief and look for help. You ask a clerk for assistance, but the hesitation in the part-timer’s voice suggests he’s making a guess about what you need. When he advises you to hang on to your receipt, you’re certain he’s guessing.

In frustration you head to the Psychology aisle and find the Psychology 101 shelf is empty. The clerk informs you the book sold out “just this morning.” You inquire as to when more copies are due and he replies with a shrug of his shoulders that the store gets shipments every day. He suggests you check back later in the week (translation: no clue if we’ll EVER get it again!). In the English section a posted sign reads, “Go to class first.” This means the books are in stock, but no one knows which ones you need. All sections of Biology 150 use the same book, but the study guide is a custom publication and hasn’t arrived yet. You leave the store with less than a quarter of your required course materials.

Buying textbooks is an art form!

This is what you're looking for
This is what you're looking for
Bring your course schedule to shop for textbooks--you'll need it.
Bring your course schedule to shop for textbooks--you'll need it.
This shelf tag has most of the information you will need
This shelf tag has most of the information you will need
The ISBN is one of the best ways to determine if you have the right book
The ISBN is one of the best ways to determine if you have the right book
Luckily some Textbook Managers are really good at their job!  Like this guy Mike, for example...
Luckily some Textbook Managers are really good at their job! Like this guy Mike, for example...
This girl found her required books, but how is she going to read all that?
This girl found her required books, but how is she going to read all that?

What can be done?

Many people will recommend buying textbooks online. While this is an acceptable alternative, it isn’t impossible to successfully buy textbooks from a college store. It just takes a little effort on your part—the same effort it would take to buy them online. To get everything you need when you shop for course materials, you must be armed with the following “ammunition”:

1. Have all your course information available. Know the course (Geography); the course number (104); its name (Introduction to Geography); the section number (a number designated to distinguish one section from another); and, your instructor. This information will allow you or the sales staff to find your books and research any problems.

2. Email your instructor and ask questions about your course materials. What edition of the book is required, and will an older edition work? Who is the author? What company publishes the book? What is the ISBN (International Standard Book Number), the unique 13-digit number reference number that identifies the book? Has a package of materials been requested? If so, will the ancillary materials be required, or is the book alone sufficient? Are there any coursepacks, print on demand titles, or custom publications that might delay shipment of the materials to the store?

Armed with this information, you can shop with confidence. In your college bookstore, books will be arranged on the shelves by course, course number, and section. The store will not usually reference the name of the class, but some might. The books will be displayed on shelf tags—if you can decipher them, you will successfully find your books.

The shelf tag has a wealth of information including course, number and section, the instructor (if known) and each book adopted. Smaller stores might list all books on a single tag, but most will have a separate tag for each book. The tag will tell you if the book is required, recommended or optional; it will list a new and used price; and, it might list the ISBN, edition and publisher. This is the same information you have verified with your instructor prior to shopping for textbooks, and the reason should now be obvious—you can match what the instructor provided you to the shelf tag’s information and be certain you have the right books. Without complete knowledge of both your course and its required materials, you will be forced to guess what you need.

When you find the books listed for Geography 104 and have matched the instructor and section number with your schedule, you have located your books. Compare the ISBN on the book and shelf tag with those provided by your instructor. An ISBN match is the best way to know if you have the correct book. Be sure to look at both the book and the tag! A wrong book can easily be placed on the shelf tag by unaware staff!

You might discover a shrink-wrapped package resting on the shelf tag. A package or bundle will typically combine a textbook, a workbook or study guide (if one is available) and possibly online materials. Communicate with your instructor to learn if the extra materials are required, or if you can get by with just purchasing the book. Frequently the bookstore will carry the package components individually to present options, and they might offer used copies of the book if it has been on the market for awhile. You must read the shelf tags and be careful not to buy both a package and its individual components.

The shelf tag will indicate if a book is required, recommended or optional. The required and recommended designations are self-explanatory, but optional materials can be confusing. When a store labels a book as optional, it often means it is an alternate title. It might be an older edition, a component of a package, or a mass market publication. If the alternate title substitutes for another book, you will not want both. Often the instructor will list every book as required because college stores order fewer recommended and optional titles. Ask the teacher in advance to tell you what materials are absolutely essential.

The new and used designations are also important. A shelf tag will list a new and used price, but it does not mean both are available. A package or new edition will not have used materials available. Conversely, the bookstore might not see the need to carry new copies of a popular title like “Cather in the Rye.” Used books are typically 75% of the price of a new copy. Ask the sales staff to verify any price that varies from this formula.

Finally, the tag will indicate the number of books required. Be alert to tags spread across several shelves or around the corner of an aisle. Although the books should be in a course order sequence, it is not always clear how many books are required.


You did it! You found the books required for your course and may now proceed to the checkout. After you’ve made your purchase, verify with your instructor that you have what is required as soon as possible. Even if it looks as if you found exactly what you need, things can go wrong. The instructor might change his mind at the last moment, or a book could stray onto the wrong shelf. It is not the bookstore’s responsibility to make things right for you if a mistake is made, and you might be stuck with a book you don’t want if you aren’t careful. To ensure you can return books if you need to, observe the following rules:

1. Keep your receipt. This is such a simple step, and it is so often ignored. Don’t expect the store to look up the register’s transaction number, your credit card receipt or remember your face. Let me repeat this: keep your receipt.

2. Do not break open shrink-wrapped materials. Until you are certain you will keep the book, leave it exactly as you bought it. A package cannot be returned to the publisher or re-sold as new if the shrink-wrap seal is broken, even if the book is never used. If the bookstore is faced with the choice of absorbing the expense of your mistaken purchase or letting you do it, they will choose you.

3. Know when the store’s returns period ends. A bookstore will not allow unlimited textbook returns, and you must know when the last day for returns is. Some stores may allow a few days’ leniency, but most will not. Do not bring back your books for a refund after the returns period ends.

4. Ask the instructor to contact the college store on your behalf if it has the wrong books for sale. The store’s textbook manager will be warned if students are seeking a refund, and the instructor can iron out any miscommunications that might have caused the problem.

Give yourself an A+ if you follow these simple rules. You can buy textbooks from your college store with confidence and be protected when things go wrong. A course syllabus and one email to your instructor will provide you with everything needed to make an informed purchase. After all, it’s your college education.

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    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Truth, thanks for reading. Considering a class or two? That's great! Hope it turns out well for you.

      Thanks again.


    • Truth From Truth profile image

      Truth From Truth 

      11 years ago from Michigan

      Great information Mike. I have thought of taking a few classes again myself. Thanks.

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Hi Ghosty!

      I know what you're saying about going back to college for you, and not for work. I wouldn't mind going back if I didn't have to be graded. I was a horrible art history student, but after I graduated I found my old art history texts to be quite interesting. It was a lot better when I didn't have to memorize from them. I still have some of the art books, but didn't bother hanging on to much else.

      If you had returned to college a few years ago, you could have bought plenty of used textbooks from the guy in the picture stocking shelves. He was a pretty good textbook manager in his day.

      Well, thank you for reading my article on textbooks.


    • Ghost Whisper 77 profile image

      JG the IGNITER 

      11 years ago from The U.S. Government protects Nazi War Criminals

      I have none of my books from college, nothing of anything...actually. I used to try to get used books, but as you said, they were missing important things-older editions that is. I miss going to college. I would love to go back for a few classes but for the things that I want to learn for me--not for work.

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Rebecca! Thanks for commenting! You were to be commended for keeping your receipts. In the old days, some stores actually gave a rebate at the end of the semester for bookstore receipts. Those were the days....

      I kept all my art history books from college and found them far more interesting than I ever did when I was forced to read them as a student. Funny how things like that always happen.

      Thanks again for commenting, it is much appreciated.


    • Rebecca E. profile image

      Rebecca E. 

      11 years ago from Canada

      this takes me back a few years, and I wish I had this then, but the flip side is I still have all my history books. i was also glad to have kept receipts since I did need to return a couple books... ( that is another story!)

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Paradise7, I know exactly what you mean. I always hated it when the bookstores snuck in an old edition at a "discounted" price. Sometimes it was close enough to get by, but often it wasn't. When stores do that, it is definitely a "let the buyer beware" scenario, which is so completely wrong.

      Well, that was my rant for the evening. Thanks for reading!


    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      rml, I know what you mean. I was always frustrated to see the empty shelf where my book should have been. Later I went to work there and tried to make it better.

      Have a good evening!


    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Maita, thanks for reading. Go back to college? I'm not sure how much I would like to--it was rough enough the first time around. Maybe this tme I could get it right, though.

      Thanks so much for reading!


    • Paradise7 profile image


      11 years ago from Upstate New York

      Yeah, that really did take me back. I was shocked at the outrageous prices but when I bought used books, they were a different edition than the whole class and instructor was using, so I was stuck...

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Very good information provided here. Buying textbooks was always frustrating.

    • prettydarkhorse profile image


      11 years ago from US

      hmm, I would like to go back to college and read this one, very informative Mike, Maita

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Lady_E, thanks for visiting. Yeah, new editions are a bear--most of the time, a year and a half is the entire life of a book now--it used to be five years.

      And receipts? I am amazed at the number of college students that don't think to hang on to their receipts, assuming or hoping a store will do something to help them out. Most bookstores will plaster "Save Your Receipt" signs all over the walls as a reminder, but so often it just doesn't happen.

      Oh, well.....

      Thanks again for reading, your comments are always appreciated!


    • Lady_E profile image


      11 years ago from London, UK

      Very useful info, Mike - especially with all the New Editions of Text books. I'm glad you asked that we should keep the receipt. Very vital. Regards.

    • Mike Lickteig profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike Lickteig 

      11 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      drbj, thanks for reading. It has been a few years for me, also, but I have spent time in the textbook industry and have witnessed the horror stories first-hand. Thanks for your comments on my caption, as well--it really is an art form now, far from the simple days when I was a student.

      Thanks again.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      11 years ago from south Florida

      The caption on your first graphic drew me in: "Buying textbooks is an art form."

      Well-written hub that took me back more than a few years. I remember well the disappointment I always felt when no used books were availble for any of my classes.


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