I'm sure all college students can agree with me when I say that waiting in long lines to get books for your classes stinks. It's boring; it makes you edgy; it's just not fun.
But there's an alternative to that Soviet-style shopping experience: online textbook shops. Would-be Amazon.coms such as BigWords
I began my shopping with D.C.-based Varsity-Books.com, which sells only new textbooks. It lets you refine your search by specifying your school, department and even individual classes but had no course lists for my school, the University of Maryland at College Park, until the beginning of this week.
Varsitybooks.com does offer a full refund up to 30 days after you get your order -- handy if you have one of those wishy-washy professors who decides weeks into the semester that the class won't be using that "required" $70 title. Note that this site, along with efollett, requires a credit card; BigWords will take a debit card, but forget about paying with a check or money order. Shipping charges are flat-rate, so try to order everything at once: $4.95 for UPS second-day air, $17.95 for next-day air.
San Francisco-based BigWords may have the most student-friendly site of the bunch -- bright colors and an entertaining Frequently Asked Questions section. (The FAQ has relevant info, but one of the questions that sticks in my mind is "Does Mr. Pink die at the end of Reservoir Dogs?") On the more practical side, the site, like its competitors, offers school and course-by-course browsing -- but it had U-Md. covered by mid-August. And shipping is free on orders over $35 provided you can wait eight to 10 business days for books to arrive.
Another plus to BigWords is its renting option. The company will send you a book, charge you its regular price as a security deposit, then pay you back 40 percent of that when you return the book. Very convenient. And its used-book options allow you to request a used book if available or insist on used or nothing.
Rounding out these three is efollett, the online branch of River Grove, Ill.-based Follett Corp., a leading textbook distributor. The site suffers from a chaotic search engine, leaves out too many schools and offers no spectacular deals. You might save a bit by buying from efollett's selection of used books, but shipping costs add up: Delivery within three to five business days will cost you $3.95 for the first book, plus 95 cents for each additional book. Add $8 for second-day air service or $12 for next-day air.
All three of these sites claim to save you as much as 40 percent off traditional bookstore prices, but this is not always the case. For example, a new copy of Politics in States and Communities for my GVPT260 class cost $52.70 at the University Book Center, $55 at efollett, $51.14 at BigWords and $49.81 at VarsityBooks.com. In some other cases, BigWords or efollett offered the best price. Shipping costs, however, mean you're likely to pay more overall at VarsityBooks.com or efollett -- making BigWords the best bet, factoring in its free-shipping policy and used-book selection.
Don't leave out the offline options either. Online booksellers make a good alternative, with more competitors (for instance, ecampus.com and textbooks.com) arriving all the time, but you can also save by buying used books from other students or at book co-ops. Or what works for obtaining so many other products in college, from CDs to clothes to pizza -- borrowing from friends.