Student employee clarifies bookstore misconceptions

Photo of the LC Bookstore

Students and professors alike rely on the Lewis & Clark Bookstore to supply the textbooks and novels that supplement our liberal arts curriculum. The first week of classes always has been, and always will be, a scramble to gather all the necessary materials before falling behind on tightly scheduled syllabi.

I frequently overhear less than favorable comments made about the bookstore, and sometimes its employees, too. As one of seven student bookstore employees, I hope to explain the mayhem, clarify misconceptions about the bookstore and thus enlighten my peers and professors to the other end of the experience. 

I will address frequent questions, agree with certain complaints and, most importantly, explain to you all why everyone does not get their books on time, in hopes of bringing about more awareness, patience and sympathy for our staff.

First and foremost, we are associated with Barnes & Noble, not LC. That means that Flex Points do not work at the bookstore, but Barnes & Noble gift cards do. I agree that it would be nice if Flex Points counted towards snacks, but they unfortunately do not. Spread the word.

Also, I am sorry about textbook prices. Unfortunately, this is the United States and education is expensive. The campus is isolated, and this is often the most accessible way for students to get books. I assure you, we all feel awful ringing you up, and we all understand the pain. We all wish we could have daddy’s platinum credit card to ring up $700 worth of bright orange merchandise, brand new textbooks and dozens of snacks. 

If I could change the prices for those of you who are struggling to make ends meet, I would. Truly. Like many of you, we are students (not just retail workers!) trudging through the financial woes and heavy loads of an undergraduate education.

A side note: If you are waiting at the register and you see that someone is already on their way to assist you, please do not ring the bell at them repeatedly. The bell is for when we are working in another part of the store and have not seen you yet. It is humiliating to have to walk up to a customer to help them while they ring a tiny little bell at you as if you were their personal servant. This point is geared towards students who have not worked retail jobs. 

If you are kind and patient with me, then I will be more than willing to help you. If you are demanding, imperious and impatient with me, the second you walk through the gate, then no, I do not feel obligated or inclined to waste my precious time on you or your disrespectful treatment of retail workers. This really goes for all areas of my life.

If you ask me how my day is, I will answer honestly. That does not mean that I am ill-tempered or rude, it just means that I am answering authentically and truthfully. I respect you enough not to lie to you. 

Normalize getting rid of alarmingly high-pitched customer service voices and start acting like ourselves. It makes for a much more interesting and rich life. If you are having an awful, horrid day and want to bang your head against a wall, tear all your hair out and scream into the void, I am not going to judge you for that. Maybe we can briefly connect over our shared feelings.

I have a few thoughts on how students and professors respond to the chaos of the bookstore at the beginning and end of each semester. If you do not mind, I would like to enlighten you all and put your complaints to rest. I would like to point out a few factors that impact our store’s readiness during the first week.

During the start of the semester, I often encounter negative rhetoric surrounding bookstore employees, delayed orders, long lines, missing textbooks, late fees, infinite amounts of emails and high prices. The latter two complaints, I can understand and sympathize with. The rest, I must defend.

While will I generally find my interactions with students, staff and parents to be pleasant and uneventful, I sometimes find myself in situations where I am treated without respect and blamed for situations beyond my control. I absolutely understand the frustration and anxiety that comes with not being able to get the books you need for the first week of class, but I would like to point out a few factors that impact our timeliness.

We cannot prepare orders on time if professors and students do not place their requests and orders on time. 

Naturally, the bookstore is busiest the first week of the semester and the last when students pick up and return their books. During both of these weeks, the bookstore employees work overtime to make sure that the orders are taken care of before everyone leaves for break. During finals, bookstore employees work extra hours to accommodate the chaos of returning books, despite their own academic responsibilities. 

During breaks, there are even fewer student employees and, coincidentally, more work to be done as we transition from one semester to the next. This past winter break, there were three students and one manager dealing with all the books for the undergraduate and graduate schools. 

Between the two campuses, there are more than 3,500 students and, therefore, many more thousands of books to manage. That is an overwhelming and tedious amount of work for a small staff, especially when half are gone during break and much of the load falls on a mere four human beings. We worked overtime to lift hundreds of books every day so that, when the semester began, we would be as well-prepared as possible to have existing orders ready for pick up. 

When there were four snow days in a row due to hazardous conditions, bookstore employees on and off campus still braved the weather to come in, prepare for the first day of classes and make the start of the semester as smooth as possible for LC students. 

Our ability to request, receive, unbox, organize, shelve, pick, package and deliver books to students in a timely manner depends on a few factors: early communication from professors regarding their courses’ required materials, students’ initiative in placing their orders before the start of the semester and how well-staffed we are at the time, in that order. 

From the time we become aware of a book needed for a course, it can take up to two or three weeks to receive the shipment, which means we cannot fulfill orders for those texts until the semester is well underfoot. 

Additionally, our orders are being completed on a first-come first-serve basis. If you order your books in advance, a week or two before classes start, then you will have your books ready for the first day. If you put off ordering books until after classes have started, then you have to take responsibility for the fact that you delayed your order until the busiest week of the semester, and understand that you will probably not have all your books for the first week or so of class. 

It is an avoidable problem on your end; often, the required books will show up on the website before you receive your syllabi. Even when they do not, that is not the fault of bookstore employees.

It is frustrating to get your books late, but it is even more frustrating to deal with impatient parents, entitled students and unreasonable requests from people who expect an order they placed thirty minutes ago to be ready for pickup. 

My personal favorites are the pissed off students who yell at us because they cannot pull up order numbers or bar codes from the orders their parents placed and paid for. 

Lastly, I know that finals are chaotic and it can be difficult to return books on time. You already get a month-long grace period beyond the due date in December to return the books and get refunded, so there is no need to complain about the late fees or deadlines. 

Why you put it off for this long is beyond me. Why you complain about the problem you created for yourself baffles me too. Just appreciate the long grace period and realize that late returns detract from our ability to prepare orders for this semester, and that your delays result in our delays. 

This is my plea to the LC community, particularly to its students: Perhaps complain a little less about delays at the bookstore and reflect a little more on the volume of orders our limited staff deals with at the beginning and end of every semester. 

Lifting thousands of books is not necessarily fun, and does not feel great on the back, but we are doing our best to work through all of it. Retail workers are human beings, not machines, and we appreciate patience and empathy as we navigate a stressful time of the year. 

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