Better World Books: a business with a heart

Jeff Bernel

Column by Jeff Bernel

Anyone who has helped put a child through college has most likely fainted at the cost of textbooks that students are required to purchase through the on-campus bookstore.

As a retired Notre Dame business school teaching professor, it bothered me greatly to learn the cost of books I assigned to the students in my classes.  I remember one strategy textbook that cost $180 — and this was in 2000 dollars. Absurd, but any competing texts were just as expensive, and they were essential to the learning process.

The campus bookstore would buy back used textbooks at the end of the semester, but at a fraction of their original cost and the bookstore would then mark them up almost as high as new book prices. I understand the law of supply and demand, plus the fact that the volume of printed textbooks is very low, driving up publishers’ overhead costs. But that did not mean I liked seeing students, particularly from low income backgrounds, have to cough up hard-earned, precious dollars.

From left: Xavier, Christopher and Jeff

Then along came Xavier Helgesen, Jeff Kurtzman and Christopher Fuchs — undergraduate junior English majors who decided to take my “Entrepreneurship for Non-Business Majors” course. They were even more frustrated than I about the cost of textbooks and decided to do something about it.

Each student’s final project in the class was to create a new innovative venture and write a very detailed business plan. Xavier, Christopher and Jeff’s business plan outlined a new on-campus, student-run online textbook resale business.  The plan was to have an online site that would catalog and inventory donated books and sell them at prices that significantly undercut the cost of the bookstore’s used texts.  Under their business model, the company would collect those books by providing large cardboard boxes throughout the campus, to be used for textbooks that students, particularly graduating seniors, no longer had a use for. A crew would then collect the books and bring them to a central location. You could honestly say they envisioned the business being the Amazon.com of used books.

Not only did they create the business plan, they created the business — a business they ran out of their dorm room.

The business boomed — so much so that when the trio and a few friends graduated from Notre Dame, they created what is now known as “Better World Books.” They also felt compelled to make it a socially-conscious business that would set aside 10 percent of its sales — not profits, but sales — to invest in global literacy programs.

Now, Better World Books really is the Amazon.com of the online used book business, with a national and global span that includes its Atlanta, Ga. headquarters, as well as collection and distribution sites in Mishawaka, Ind.; Reno, Nev.; the United Kingdom; and Scotland. They collect an average of 30  million books a year, of which 10 million are donated to the company’s literacy-focused partners.

Bear in mind the donated books they receive and sell would most likely have ended up in a landfill. Instead the books are shipped in hundreds of containers to schools and libraries in Africa and in many third world countries, at no cost to the recipients.

I am sure that most WNLP readers have seen those large green and white collection bins in strategic locations in and around LaPorte with the “Better World Books” logo requesting book donations. By taking the time to drop off your books, you are taking a big step in spreading literacy around the globe.

The next time you decide to go to Amazon to buy a book, check out www.betterworldbooks.com. You will be amazed at how much money you will save and how much good you can do for others who cannot afford nor have access to what most of us take for granted, books.

Log onto the Wikipedia site, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Better_World_Books, to gain more insight into the history and growth of the company since its founding in 2002 by three entrepreneurial and socially-conscious students I had the honor privilege to teach.

My 20 years experience at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship was tremendously rewarding by helping bright and socially-conscious men and women realize that yes, they can start a business and then showing them the right path. Just look at Xavier, Jeff and Christopher; they did it, and oh boy, did they.

Jeffrey A. Bernel, MBA, was a member of the faculty of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business for twenty years as a teaching professor and the director of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. He was owner, chairman, CEO and president of American Rubber Products from 1979-1996 and chairman and owner of UniTek Sealing Solutions from 2006 to 2010. Jeff currently is the founding and current chair of the Healthcare Foundation of La Porte.

One Response to “Better World Books: a business with a heart”

  1. Kathy T

    Jun 25. 2020

    Now I know what they green and white collection bins are for! Good to know.

    Reply to this comment

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