If you had walked into the basement of Garman House at the beginning of this semester, you would have found students browsing rows and rows of gently-used books. In the background, checks dating back to 1982 adorn the walls.
Since at least the 1980s, The Option, Amherst College’s student-run used bookstore, has been pursuing the mission of providing students affordable access to course materials. The bookstore recently completed its second selling period following its reopening in the fall after a year-long pandemic-induced closure. Students in charge of The Option’s operations introduced a number of changes this semester, including the introduction of a public catalog of the store’s inventory and new marketing techniques, in an attempt to attract more students and revitalize the resource.
The Option is a consignment bookstore, operating as a third party through which students can buy and sell books. The store aims to provide cheaper alternatives to required course materials while also giving students an opportunity to sell their own unneeded materials. As a nonprofit organization that receives no outside funding from the college, The Option relies solely on students to provide books to resell. Upon the sale of a given book, the majority of the proceeds are given to the book’s previous owner, with a small percentage going to The Option’s staff. Prices at the store generally range from $7 to $10 per title, though textbook pricing can vary.
Zhihan Xu ’24, who has directed the bookstore’s operations since the summer of 2021, said that, following the onset of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, there was “a lack of continuity and a good amount of turnover” in the store’s leadership. The store paused its operations through the remote semesters of the previous year, and much of the store’s previous leadership graduated in the interim.
Xu, who entered Amherst College during its remote period, was hired before having even shopped at The Option himself. “Last fall was a lot of us just trying to figure stuff out still,” he said about the return to normal operations last semester.
Coming into this semester, Xu and his team looked for ways to improve the service. “We could see that there were shortcomings in our own system. So, my goal at the start of this semester was to reorganize it,” he said. Xu and his team spent January term sorting and cataloging The Option’s collection, which boasts more than 16,000 books.
This effort to improve the store’s accessibility has proved successful in the eyes of many students. Ankit Sayed ’24, who bought more than 20 books from The Option this year, considers the new catalog of the bookstore’s collection an “absolute game changer,” noting that he picked up more books than he would have otherwise.
Due to The Option’s closure during the remote semesters, however, the bookstore has declined in recognition among the student body. Ella Peterson ’22 recalled that, during her freshman year, lines at The Option would wind “all the way up the Garman staircase to the third floor.” Following the pandemic, “it seems less common for folks to use it,” she said.
Helen Mak ’24 said that one of The Option’s main goals this semester was to raise awareness of the resource among underclassmen, given that Covid hindered their exposure to it. In order to do so, Mak explained that she “created posters that we posted around campus, blasted on email, and shared on AmherstBussin.”
Mak also worked to improve The Option’s outreach through social media by setting up an Instagram page (@theoptionac). “Creating an Instagram account has also allowed students to ask us questions directly, and we feel more in touch and updated with the concerns and ideas that students had,” she said.
As a result of these new initiatives, The Option “had a more consistent flow of students coming,” Mak shared.
Xu said that he hoped The Option could alleviate some of the potential financial burden that book-buying can pose. “There’s got to be books down there that people need that they’re not aware of. If you want to have a physical copy of a book, that shouldn’t be the reason that you can’t access it.”
The books available at The Option consist of both classic works of literature and titles written more recently — including some by Amherst professors.
“You see a lot of Greek authors like Homer, and we have a ton of titles for big, intro classes. I think we have 20-odd copies of [William Nelson Cromwell] Professor [of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin] Sarat’s books, and a ton of stuff by [Samuel Green] Professor [of Religion Susan] Niditch,” Xu said.
The store is also home to various textbooks, though the selection is largely humanities-oriented. Sayed acknowledged this, stating that it was much easier to find texts for humanities classes given their reliance on classic, foundational texts. Xu, recognizing the limitations of the bookstore’s resources, stated that providing up-to-date STEM-oriented textbooks was a more complicated process, given the frequent release of updated editions with revised problem sets.
Xu does see opportunities to improve The Option that are within reach, though, noting that The Option has regained access to its official Amherst College email, which Xu is hoping to use to notify students of the bookstore’s re-opening at the start of each semester and of the dates of their “book-drop” events.
In the future, Xu is also looking to introduce a reservation system to the bookstore. This would allow students to place books on hold and have them collected by the store’s staff for pick-up because, as Xu notes, Amherst students “don't always have time to go and browse.” The Option staff has also thought about expanding their selling period past the dates of Add/Drop period, but, as a student run service, it is “a little bit hard to operate … during the semester,” Xu said.
“At the end of the day, it’s just kids doing this to provide a service,” said Sayed. “I think they’re doing a great job.”
Moving forward, Xu hopes to expand The Option’s presence and accessibility on campus. “I’d like to get faculty more involved. You notice trends on what books people are buying, and it would be nice to have faculty present us as a possibility, to be the best resource we can be. We have these books, we are an option,” Xu concluded.
Though The Option is now closed following the end of the Add/Drop period, the store will be accepting book drops during Reading Period at the end of the spring semester.