Students set up textbook swap

Junior Tim Calise says he has “always been an entrepreneur.” Matt Mandell, also a junior, says he is frustrated about exorbitant textbook prices and getting too little money back when he sells books to the bookstore. Put both GW students together in a residence hall room during summer 2002 and the result was VarsityText.com.

Officially established Dec. 10, VarsityText.com allows college students from all over the world to buy and sell used textbooks.

Students post their books on the site, naming their own price and rating the books’ quality. Buyers can search for the books they need on the Web site and purchase them by credit card.

The seller is obligated to ship the book within two days and provide a tracking number. When the books arrive, the buyer alerts the site and the administrators send the seller the money, detracting a $1.00 fee per transaction.

“I was annoyed that the bookstore took advantage of us,”Mandell said.

The psychology major shared his idea this past summer with Calise, his roommate and fellow member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.

“Why don’t we actually connect students together?” Mandell proposed. In early August, he and Calise began building a Web site to do just that. They spent 20-30 hours per week working on the site.

Mandell said he came up with the idea behind VarsityText.com during his freshman year and remembered that it was “definitely a challenge” to balance academics and preparing VarsityText.com.

“(Working on the site) ate into social time more than anything,” Calise said. An economics major, Calise said creating site “put a real face on the text.”

He said it gave him an opportunity to “use what I know and try to apply it.”

The site boasts members from places like Puerto Rico and France, though it is mostly popular in D.C. and Virginia. More than 70,000 books were posted for sale as of Jan. 9.

Calise and Mandell would not say how many transactions have taken place, but Mandell said, “(the site is) very much a cyclical business.”

Students have mostly been posting books for sale this month, and the creators expect more sales to occur in the next six to eight weeks.

The creators are engaged in what Mandell called “grassroots marketing.” Not solely relying on word of mouth, Calise and Mandell spent their winter break travelling to colleges along the East Coast to promote VarsityText.com. The Washington Post also featured the site in a Dec. 19, 2002 article.

Mandell said the goal of VarsityText.com is “not as much about profits as to change the way bookstores do business and provide an alternative.”

However, the bookstores do not seem particularly concerned.

Cliff Ewert, vice president of public and campus relations for Follett Higher Education Group, the company that manages the GW bookstore, said the number of used books campus bookstores buy back from and sell to students is increasing despite Internet competition.

“Convenience is worth a lot,” he said.

Through efollett.com, students can find out what books they need and pre-order and pre-pay for books. The store is required by its contract with the University to stock all the required books: if there is a problem, students can simply bring the books back to the store instead of reshipping.

Freshman Matt Esteve, who bought his textbooks at the GW Bookstore Sunday, said the bookstore is still “easier” because he does not have to order his books far in advance and all the information about what books he needs is at the store.

“There’s such a long line,” he said. “If it’s cheaper to buy online, I’d just buy online. I just have to think ahead.”

Mandell said VarsityText.com is “delayed gratification” compared to the immediacy of the bookstore, “but you can get a lot larger return on your investment.”

There are also many options for students who choose the Internet over a campus bookstore. In addition to VarsityText.com, sites run by larger corporations such as Amazon.com and Half.com (a division of eBay) also offer marketplaces for student-to-student textbook sales.

Junior Boukje Deboer said she posted a book for sale at VarsityText.com, though it has not sold yet. She said she has purchased textbooks through both Half.com and Amazon.com before, but she finds a “certain level of reassurance” from the fact that VarsityText.com is run by people who “also have a stake” in the textbook buying process.

The co-founders said they hope to eventually hire several students to help them because they are “trying to keep this student-run and student-oriented,” Mandell said.

Both Mandell and Calise are open to the idea of continuing to work on the site after graduation. Calise said he likes the idea of “working for myself … and for college students.”

The partners are working on translating the site into Spanish, and they expect to develop six or seven more projects within the next year that would cater to the needs of students.

“We’re definitely not looking to break the bank,” Calise said. “At the end of the day, we’re just two college students trying to make a difference.”

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