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December 14-20, 2005

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Fast Times in Spartan Bookstore

By Gary Singh

Things are heating up over on Paseo de San Antonio near SJSU. Some folks have opened up a new place called Beat the Bookstore. It's part of a nationwide franchise of bookstores attempting to compete with campus bookstores by selling textbooks for less and buying nearly every book back from the students for more money. Their website says this: "Tuition is unbearably high, and yet increasing. Living expenses can be equally daunting, but students perceive textbooks to represent the most infamous extortion of their money. It's not surprising that the majority of students distrust, dislike and are frustrated by the campus bookstore. They perceive that the bookstore offers high prices, low buy-back values, and unacceptably poor service." Since SJSU students have been complaining forever about ridiculously high prices for textbooks, maybe now is the right time for a San Jose-based franchise of Beat the Bookstore.

There's only one problem, of course. Just like you knew they wouldn't, Spartan Bookstore is not releasing the textbook lists given to them by the faculty, so Beat the Bookstore can't get the ball rolling. Spartan Bookstore is operated by Spartan Shops, who also run the campus dining services as well as Spartan Stadium. They are an "auxiliary" of the university and this is the same type of nonsense they tried to pull when they attempted to shut down the Ethiopian guys who run the hot dog carts on the sidewalks outside the university. Apparently, they saw the hot dog carts as a threat to their food sales.

I'm not going to slam Spartan Shops too much over this, because I have several memories while working in the receiving department at Spartan Bookstore from 1990 to 1993, beginning with the ridiculous group interview they conducted. We all sat around a table and they asked us what was the most recent book we had read. One girl said it was a romance novel. The next person, a science fiction book. I was one of the last to answer and I said Charles Manson in His Own Words. I wasn't lying. They hired me and it was all downhill from there.

The job itself was remunerative drudgery in the bowels of hell: counting and putting price tags on textbooks and merchandise for hours on end, the kind of job where complaining about the crappy canned light-rock music was the only thing anyone ever looked forward to.

There were indeed highlights though: trading insults with the UPS driver out on the receiving dock; watching All My Children every day at lunch in the now-defunct Spartan Pub; taking home old throwaway fixtures, as it seemed like the bookstore got remodeled about once every six months or so. I once built an entire living room with nothing but old fixtures from Spartan Bookstore.

This was back when the receiving department was still located in the bottom of the bookstore itself. Somewhere around 1992, it moved to its current location near Seventh and Commercial. They then changed the name of it to the "Distribution Center," which is ludicrous because the only place it distributes to is Spartan Bookstore. There's no reason to call it a distribution center.

Anyway, it's no surprise that the nauseating boredom of such a dreary job would drive a natural-born prankster to novel heights, no pun intended. But that's exactly what happened when we got the new price-tag system. You would run a strip of bar-coded stick-on tags through the machine and then type in the price and what the item was; for example, pens, binders, glue, gifts, general supplies or whatever. And then you'd stick the tag onto the item. One time, I had a run of 50 pens to price. Instead of typing "pens" into the machine, I typed "penis."

You see, if you walk into the pen section of a bookstore and pick up a pen with the price tag wrapped around it, you'll just test it to see what the writing looks like, gaze at the price and either buy it or not buy it. You'll never even notice that the tag says "penis" instead of "pens." And no one did notice. Fifty pens with bar-code labels that said penis went out onto the sales floor of Spartan Bookstore and not one person caught it. Yeah! It was the most liberating escapade I'd engaged in for nearly a week.

So there you have it. I wish Beat the Bookstore all the luck in the world with their new adventure, and I thank Spartan Shops for allowing me to enjoy such wonderful times.

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