For the past few weeks, I have been working in the college bookstore at the request (and gift) of my friend Kathy who runs it. I get to help her during her busiest time, and she gets to give me a little extra cash during this “transitional period.” It’s a win-win.

Yesterday, financial aid came through for the students, and honestly, it was a little insane in there. I walked in to see all three registers running (it’s a small store), people wandering the aisles, and an altogether hell-bent pace – be it courteous – from the employees. I dropped my bag and Clean Canteen and started to work – for the next 6.5 hours solid (minus a small break to wolf down some organic chocolate milk and organic chocolate chip cookies – Kathy takes care of me).

I have observed a few things from this experience. First, people don’t seem as excited as I ever was to get to go spend hundreds of dollars on books. Now, I understand that textbooks are expensive (more on that later), but when I got to load up my arms with books at the beginning of each term I got a little giddy. I would look at each title, hold it, touch it lightly with my fingertips, and lay it in my basket. Then, when I saw the total, I would get a little flush with energy – so much cash given to words on a page.

But most of our customers are simply flabbergasted by the price or, even, the weight of the books (which I can understand especially if you’re a nursing major). They groan as I get another title off the shelf for their class, even when the books are for English class (for shame! :)). They ask if they really “need it”, even if it’s required. Mostly, they are just sticker-shocked and not excited. I find that a little sad. I’m not sure this attitude reflects their general opinion of education, but I fear it might.

Which brings me to my second observation – textbooks are too d*&^ expensive. I am blown away that a little Political Science textbook of less than 150 pages is almost $80. And then when you get into the bio books or the nursing texts, we’re talking $150 a book at least. But I was most flabbergasted by the cost of transportation books (like for truck-driving training or logistics management) – they were each almost $200. I love books, but this is too much.

Of course, the textbook publishers can charge this because students are required to buy these books for classes, and most of them do. And while teachers can help the problem by requiring fewer books if possible and by trying to use them several semesters in a row, we have to be most focused on getting good information to students, not on cutting costs. Students can sometimes help themselves by buying online, but then they run the risk that the book won’t be in good condition or won’t be the right edition and not have time to send it back before class starts (a student in one of my classes had this problem this semester). I simply wish textbook publishers would be a little more ethical (I wish this of drug and insurance companies, too) and curb their profits a tad in order to help people get an education. The benefits of that choice will eventually reach them when they have better educated and less financially buried employees in a few years.

The final thing I have noticed from working in the bookstore is that it is hard work. It has been years since I did a job that required much that was physically grueling of me – the benefit? of all those years of education I suppose. But I must say my body hurts today. Lifting books down off high shelves, carrying stacks of tomes to the register for students, restocking the soda coolers (okay, that wasn’t too hard), and just being on my feet on a hard floor all day – that stuff is taxing on the old body, especially when the old body is used to working her jaw and her writing hand more than any other part of her body. Hats off to everyone who does physical work (and more physical work than this) on a daily basis.

I am loving this chance to see college from a new angle; it gives me more of a sense of the students I teach, a real one that isn’t tempered by the power dynamic of the classroom. I wonder if all of us in academia might not benefit from a similar experience.