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Frugal Book-Buying Can Save You Lots of Money

By Jennifer Krishnan


This article is the second in a series intended to introduce freshmen to life in Boston and at the Institute.

There’s a big party tonight, another tomorrow ... and then in another week, Registration Day, followed immediately by classes, which have required texts. Many of these books cost $100 or more at the MIT Coop. There goes your $400 of “spending money.”

What’s a freshman to do?

Do I really have to buy the books?

Lesson 1: It is not always necessary to buy all the required and recommended texts for all your classes.

First of all, the professor or a teaching assistant -- or an upperclassman who has taken the class -- will be able to tell you if a book is really necessary for a class. Ask before you shell out that $100.

If you think you’ll be using a textbook, but not very much, find out if the professor will be putting a copy on hold in the library.

For a class you’re not sure you want to invest in, find out if you can borrow a book from an upperclassman. Some people like to keep their textbooks as references, but don’t mind lending them out.

Finally, it is possible to share a textbook with a classmate. It’s rough first semester, when you don’t know your friends -- or your own study habits -- very well yet, but might be something to try next term.

Where can I get them cheap?

You’ll probably find the lowest prices for textbooks in your own dorm. There’s not a cheaper source for a Physics I (8.01) book than a sophomore who hated the class and can’t wait to get the book off his hands. In about a week, you’ll start to see the flyers advertising these low-priced textbooks; if you don’t, or if you can’t find one for the class you’re taking, you can always try asking around your floor.

Be careful, though -- textbooks often change along with whoever’s teaching the course, so just because that sophomore says this is the book she used for Calculus (18.02) last term, don’t assume it’s the book you need for 18.02 this term. Check the course Web site, or wait to see the syllabus.

Can you use an old edition of the same text? Sometimes. It can be annoying if the professor assigns “page 532, problems 3, 13, 35, and 49” because page numbers and suggested problems often change with editions. But if they just want you to read relevant sections, an old edition will often suffice. Ask someone who’s taken the class.

This kind of textbook hunting can be a lot of work, but there are a few services that can help you out if you don’t want to put in all that work. hosts, among other useful resources, a textbook exchange. Students can post information about their used books, along with their contact information, and you can browse through all the postings. Again, check to be sure it’s really the book you want.

Alpha Phi Omega, a service fraternity, hosts a book exchange every term. Before Registration Day, people drop off their used books indicating how much they want them to sell for, and during the first week of school, anyone can drop in and shop around. APO deducts a 5 percent service charge, which might mean the price is a few dollars higher than otherwise, and you can’t haggle over the price, but it’s all in one place and you don’t have to track down that person who put a flyer up.

Where can I get them new?

There’s always more traditional booksellers, both physical and online, that sell both new and used textbooks.

Near the Kendall Square subway station, you’ll find the MIT Coop, the MIT Press Bookstore, and Quantum Books.

At Quantum, you’ll find discounted “technical” books, mostly Course VI (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) and Course XVIII (Mathematics) stuff, though often books for other subjects can also be found there. They have a whole section dedicated to MIT textbooks. Quantum is located around the corner from Legal Sea Foods, and they accept the MIT Card as form of payment.

The MIT Press Bookstore sells mostly books published by MIT professors, so it’s sort of a toss-up whether they’ll have what you’re looking for, and they have very few books for introductory courses. They’re across the street from the Coop, and they also take the MIT Card.

The Coop is where most MIT departments send their textbook lists. It’s the easiest way to get books -- no research required, and all the benefits of a normal store, like the ability to return a book if you decide you don’t want it -- but it’s also pretty expensive. The Coop does not accept the MIT Card.

You’re probably already familiar with the major online booksellers. They include, Barnes and Noble, and price-finding services like and BestBookBuys.

What about course readers?

Course readers are officially only sold by CopyTech, either in the basement of Building 11 or in the basement of the Sloan building, depending on the class. They are usually compilations of articles or notes created by instructors.

Course notes developed by the instructor are usually not too expensive; compilations of articles for humanities, arts, and social sciences classes are often quite pricey because of the copyrighted material.

Sometimes they change a little from year to year, but often they are very similar, such that you can buy or borrow an old reader and use the newer copy on reserve at the library for missing parts.

Course readers are non-refundable, so be sure you’re really going to take the class before you buy the reader. If you’re going to take a while to decide, use the reader on hold in the library until you decide.