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Trekking to Talking Leaves bookstore at the start of each semester has long been a tradition for University at Buffalo students.
But not this year.
While the Main Street bookstore has been around for 40 years - and plans to be around for many more - the store no longer will stock textbooks for college classes, which resumed this week at UB.
In a way, it's the end of an era. And not just for Talking Leaves, which has served as an alternative to the campus bookstore since opening in 1971.
The textbook industry has changed. Over time, a handful of publishing companies gained control of the industry, and prices soared, growing by twice the rate of inflation - 6 percent a year - between 1986 and 2004, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.
Students, on average, spent about $1,200 on books and supplies last year, according to the College Board, a nonprofit that tracks college costs.
As a result, small independent bookstores like Talking Leaves serve as a reminder of just how much has changed in the way college students buy their textbooks.
"Given the trend in the last five years, our choice, I think, was to ramp up the textbook business and try to do it in a way that was bigger - or get out of it," said Jonathon Welch, who owns the store with his wife, Martha. "And bigger is not better to me."
The store - located a few blocks from the South Campus - was once located down the street from where it is now. It was known as everyman's bookstore, when Welch and a bunch of his graduate school buddies had the idea to buy the business and run it as a co-op.
The co-op was short-lived, and Welch eventually became proprietor. While never considered a college bookstore, Talking Leaves annually stocked the course books requested by UB faculty, mostly from the humanities and social sciences.
At its peak, Talking Leaves was ordering books for as many as 225 college classes, drawing a couple thousand college students through the door each semester. It was good advertising, and at one point, accounted for as much as 40 percent of the store's business.
"What's changed is the Internet and the wider availability of used books on the Internet," said Welch, 62. "That's allowed people to shop around more than they could have before."
"In the old days, there were always used textbooks, but basically you had to buy them where you were," he said. "There could be 100 copies of an economic textbook at the University of Michigan, but that wasn't going to help you if you were at UB. Now, you can actually find that out and order it online."
While it was rare to sell out, a good semester for Talking Leaves meant selling 80 percent of what was ordered for a class.
In recent years, the store was selling only about 25 percent of the orders.
It was also a lot of work for a small staff of seven or eight, and shipping was costing Welch a fortune.
Furthermore, he couldn't compete with the new kid on the block - Amazon.com.
"The other big thing in the past five years is Amazon has gone after student traffic in a very big way and done so by basically what I consider predatory pricing - selling books at a loss," Welch said. "Their theory, I think, is 'Let's get these students to buy their textbooks from us and then they'll start buying even more - music, movies, electronics.'?"
Campus bookstores are affected, too.
"The sales of textbooks have kind of leveled off and declined somewhat - not a lot, but it's starting to," said Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Association of College Stores.
While e-textbooks haven't caught on with college students as much as you might think, one change that has taken off is the textbook rental business, Schmidt said.
In 2009, only about 10 percent of the association's 3,000 stores offered a program that allowed students to rent textbooks for as much as half the price of purchasing, Schmidt said.
"This year," Schmidt said, "we anticipate almost all of our 3,000 members are offering a rental program of some kind."
Welch, though, wasn't eager to jump in.
"The other issue - and to some extent, I think, the biggest issue - is basically students are not buying books the way they used to," Welch said.
In fact, an informal survey conducted last year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group showed 7 out of 10 students on 13 campuses said they had not purchased one or more textbooks because the prices were too high.
"My sense is that a lot of these kids are smart enough to figure out either how to use the Web, how to use their friends and to do enough work to get through the class," Welch said. "You're not going to knock the socks off the teacher, but you're not going to fail, either."
Talking Leaves is a bookstore in the truest sense. There are no college sweatshirts for sale here, no mocha lattes for purchase. There's a wide selection on the shelves: poetry, politics, new-age occult, best sellers, mythology, women's studies, literary classics. And there's Buddy, the store cat.
Loyal customers, such as Paul Zarembka, liked sending their students here, but they understand the market has changed.
"It's a bloody pity," said Zarembka, a UB economics professor and Talking Leaves customer for more than 30 years. "I liked the opportunity to support them as an independent bookstore. They've always been excellent. I never had any problem."
Welch opened a second store on Elmwood Avenue in 2001, but that location has never sold textbooks.
Business has been OK, but not great, Welch said. As a whole, he said, the book business has been struggling the past few years due to the bad economy and a rise in e-readers.
It was a tough decision to get out of the textbook business, and Welch is a little anxious to see how it pans out.
Still, the community has always supported the store and he's hopeful Talking Leaves will be around long after he's gone.
"But the reality is, I don't know. I can't read the future," Welch said. "If you had told me 35 years ago that textbooks will cost as much as they do, I would have said, 'No. These are books, man, that doesn't happen.'"

email: jrey@buffnews.com