Amherst Books Expects to Lose $100K Due to College Book Program

After negotiations between the college and Amherst Books failed to reach an agreement, Amherst College is set to open a book distribution center in town. Amherst Books expects to lose significant business.

Amherst Books Expects to Lose $100K Due to College Book Program
Amherst Books said that the college’s proposed contract asked them to stop selling trade books and seemed to imply that they would not be able to meet the conditions. Photo courtesy of Lauren Kelz ’27.

As a result of the college’s new course material distribution center set to open in Fall 2024 on South Pleasant Street, Amherst Books projects it will lose around $100,000 in revenue each year, the store’s owners said. The town’s independent bookstore supplied coursebooks to Amherst’s students for over a decade before the college decided to provide course materials directly to students as part of tuition.

Although Amherst Books was among the five vendors approached about supplying course materials, the college ultimately chose the education products company Follett, with whom it is nearing an official arrangement.

Shannon Ramsey, one of the store’s co-owners, said that the college may have mistakenly included language in a request sent to Amherst Books that implied they had concerns about the store’s ability to supply all of the college’s course materials and merchandise.

“These indicated to me that, even if we were to submit a proposal our chances weren't good,” she added.

Nat Herold, the founding owner of Amherst Books, said “the letter they sent was sort of condescending.” He added that the college “hadn’t really done their homework, they didn’t realize that at one point we had supplied virtually all of the college’s books.”

In addition, the college asked them to agree to a number of “security measures,” Herold said. “When I looked into them, I found that they were very rare and unusual; they didn’t seem to be standard operating procedure.”

In an interview with The Student, Executive Director of Campus Operations Ralph Johnson, who oversaw the request for proposal (RFP) process for the college, said that these measures were necessary to ensure students’ personally identifiable information was protected.

A spokesperson for the college added that other book suppliers the college had been in conversation with, including Follett, were familiar with these requirements and agreed to meet them.

There was also some confusion over another aspect of the college’s RFP to Amherst Books. Johnson said that the college made it clear that vendors other than Amherst Books would not be able to sell trade books, which include many novels and works of popular nonfiction, so as to not intrude on Amherst Books’ business.

But Ramsey said that they were unsure whether that stipulation  would have applied to them as well.

“We just took it for what we understood it to be, which was a point of negotiation, a question in the RFP, ” she said.

Asked if knowing that the clause was intended to protect the bookstore rather than prevent it from selling trade books would have changed their willingness to come to an agreement with the college, Ramsey said “It’s impossible to say. It wasn’t the only point of consideration for us.”

While they did not provide documentation, Ramsey and Herold said the estimate for the $100,000 figure is based on the amount they brought in during the 2022-2023 academic year from selling course materials to Amherst students.

The college says that the fact that the new distribution location will not provide “trade books” except those included in courses will help protect Amherst Books' business. Photo courtesy of Lauren Kelz '27.

At a faculty meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein outlined the college’s new initiative. She emphasized that the financial impact on Amherst Books would be minimized by the clause preventing Follett from selling trade books out of the new location in town, and did not address any aspect of the college’s discussions with Amherst Books.

Amelie Hastie, professor of English and film and media studies, said that “the college said that they had talked to Amherst Books about partnering with the college and that Amherst Books declined, and they didn’t offer additional information about that.”

“We should all be concerned about the health of a vibrant, independent book store such as Amherst Books, and I think the community and the college should be committed to making sure that it remains an integral part of our community,” said Lawrence Douglas, chair of the law, jurisprudence, and social thought department.

Hastie expressed concern over the college’s decision to partner with Follett.

“It is particularly distressing that the college administration has made a decision that will have a substantial negative impact on what I think is one of our most important local businesses to the college,” she said.

“As a film professor I have encouraged the administration to continue to support Amherst Cinema, but I cannot think of another business that is more important to the healthy work of a liberal arts college than a bookstore, and a local one at that.”

Despite concerns over the college’s communications, Ramsey, the Amherst Books co-owner, wrote to The Student that she “wholeheartedly believes that including the price of course books in tuition and fees is a net positive to students.”

“The college has confirmed that they will continue to support Amherst Books by making special orders, orders for tenure review, department bulk orders, and the like, through our shop rather than through Follett,” she said. “For that we are grateful, because we would like to remain a place that supplies books for academics, and where professors can discover content for their courses, even if we aren't the supplier of student course materials.”

The college’s new course material distribution center, which will be located at the former AJ Hastings storefront, will provide merchandise in addition to course materials.

Johnson and Matthew McGann, director of admission and financial aid, will also meet with The Option, the on-campus store where students can buy and sell pre-owned course books, later this month to discuss its future.

Correction, Jan. 24, 2024: This article has been updated to reflect information provided by a spokesperson for the college. The college, while it did issue an RFP to Amherst Books, never entered into contract negotiations. Also, the security measures mentioned in the college’s RFP were familiar to Follett, who agreed to meet them.