Books, Bucks & Business: Local Students Take On Textbooks Trade

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Spencer Perry

Procrastinating parents: School starts in just a few weeks; have you bought your kids’ textbooks yet? There’s still time. And for parents of upper school students at one area independent school, there’s more than once choice of textbook suppliers to consider.

Three years ago, a group of seniors at Gilman School devised a clever way to raise money for the school. Former Gilman student council members Rishi Bedi, Zane Macfarlane, and John Chirikjian launched a textbook service dubbed the Blue Grey Book Drive, allowing their classmates to sell back their old school books and buy ones for the upcoming school year—with proceeds going directly back to the school.

Perhaps even more appealing to prospective customers is this: the student-run book drive guarantees customers cheaper prices on textbooks and bigger refunds on buy-backs than MBS, the supplier of choice for scholastic textbooks.

Since the inception of the textbook service in 2011, members of Gilman’s student body have continued to offer the textbook services to the school’s upper school students. For a dozen or so teenagers with little to no retail or business experience, it’s been a challenging, albeit rewarding, effort.

Gilman senior and Student Council President Spencer Perry and fellow senior Michael Collins are spearheading the drive and directing the efforts of about a dozen other student volunteers. For Spencer it means that this summer, in addition to holding down a job as a camp counselor and touring college campuses, he is ultimately responsible for collecting, selling, and distributing hundreds of textbooks to potentially 400-plus customers. But the work started well before the summer book drive began.

“We had a very mad dash to get the website up and running. There was a lot of data entry input the last couple days before the drive opened. For a second we thought: ‘Oh no’. It was more time involved than we expected. I don’t think we did enough ground work,” said Spencer, who admits to being somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books, courses, and prices they needed to manage.

He says they also fell short on advertising, waiting too long to get out the word (mainly via email and word of mouth) and initially targeting students rather than their parents, the primary buyers.

Despite the challenges, the Blue Grey textbook service is having a successful season. More than 70 students have bought books from the service, which runs through Sunday, August 10. So far, the service has been able to fill every customer’s order. They get the books primarily from the textbook buy-back they hold earlier in the season; but, if need be, they will order books for students on Amazon. Ultimately, says Spencer, they aim to raise as much money as last year’s drive, roughly $12,000.

A little help
Though the students have run the drive themselves, Spencer acknowledges they’ve had some key support from adults. The Gilman administration provided course book lists and allowed the students to use space on school property to sort books. A student volunteer’s father provided the last four digits of his social security number so they could set up a business credit card account. Spencer’s mom helped out with data entry when the students found themselves in a time crunch prior to opening the drive. But ultimately, the students themselves have managed the operation, and rather shrewdly at that.

Generating profits
“We priced our books based on MBS’s prices. If they’re selling a book for $100, we’ll sell if for $75 or 80. If they give you $10 for a book someone wants to sell back, we’ll take it for $15 or $20,” Spencer said.

As for the profits, they’ll be divvied up between the rising sophomore, junior, and senior classes—those representing the grades of the students who volunteered for the drive. “Seniors are doing the majority of the work. So we take 65 or 70 percent of the profits,” Spencer said.

While plans on how to use the profits haven’t been solidified, Spencer says they’re considering using some of the money to defray the cost of prom. They may also donate some funds to the efforts of one of their classmates, who’s doing charity work in Costa Rica.

All in all, it’s been a productive summer for everyone involved. “We are kids who could be doing much more fun, interesting things in their summer,” Spencer says. Instead, he and his co-volunteers have figured out how to run a competitive business.

The Blue Grey Book Drive runs through August 10, 2014. For more information, visit the service online Blue Grey Book Drive or by email at [email protected]

Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.

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