COLUMBIA - MBS Textbook Exchange, a wholesale textbook distribution company that has been in Columbia since 1909, announced Tuesday that is "reducing its workforce and reorganizing a number of roles" in its business.

In an email, Carolyn Brown, the senior vice president and chief communications officer of MBS' parent company, Barnes and Noble Education, Inc. (BNED), explained the motivation behind the company's decision to downsize.

"Given the current macroeconomic environment and rapidly evolving dynamics in the higher education industry, today we announced that we would be making some organizational changes to strengthen our focus and efficiency and align our resources towards the highest growth opportunities ahead," Brown wrote.

According to the broader BNED second quarter fiscal year 2023 earning report, the results show an overall decrease in retail sales by $10.3 million, or 1.7% in comparison to the previous year. Additionally, retail income declined by 16.7%.

"The declines in course material product sales and retail income were primarily due to the shift to more digital course materials," the report said.

These causes, when contextualized with COVID-19 and an overall shift toward digital learning, serve to explain why there may be less of a need for in-person employees to physically manufacture textbooks.

Kurt Kaiser has worked in the textbook industry for the past 30 years. He worked for MBS in the 1980s and says even then, digital books were a topic of discussion.

"We've been told that digital was going to take the place of print for a long time," Kaiser said.

Today, he works for the Colorado State University Bookstore in Fort Collins, Colorado. He said the access to digital textbooks represents a larger effort to make resources more accessible for students.

"Students have the materials on day one, they're ready to go. It's decreasing the barriers of entry, so to speak, for students to be able to have the access on day one. And we're offering it a less expensive option than going directly to the publishers," Kaiser said.

Brown echoed this sentiment in her email by describing where MBS is aiming to expand in the future.

"Looking ahead, we will be accelerating the adoption and growth of our First Day Complete equitable access model, which removes barriers for students by providing greater access, affordability, convenience and, ultimately, greater academic success," she wrote.

For instance, Michelle Baumstark, the chief communications officer for Columbia Public Schools, shared that the school district began its shift away from using print textbooks a while ago.

"We actually use very few print textbooks," Baumstark wrote in an email. "Most of our textbooks are online or digital. We went this route many years ago when we went 1:1 with digital devices (beginning for the most part in 2012). That's not to say we don't have some textbooks, we do. But not every student has print textbooks in CPS."

Brown's email did not outline how many or which positions would be eliminated.

Marilyn Estes Nevels worked at MBS's call center for 18 years and found out she was terminated on Tuesday. She says she received an email on Monday evening around 6:30 p.m. saying there would be a mandatory meeting from 9:30 to 9:45 the next day.

"I asked my supervisor what this was about," Nevels said in a chat message online. "He said he didn't know. I found out from a co-worker this morning. She was told anyone on the meeting at 9:30 got terminated. She told me to check and see if I could log on. I tried several times and knew I was one who got terminated. No notice, no nothing."

Nevels said her main issue wasn't with being fired, but more so with the timing and delivery.

"It was disrespectful," she said. "I understand they did what they had to do. They knew months ago about this. They could have given us a chance to find another job."

MBS Textbook Exchange has been a major employer in Columbia for the past few years. According to a 2020 report from Regional Economic Development, Inc., an economic development agency in Columbia, MBS Textbook Exchange ranked 11th on the list of Boone County's largest employers.

At that time, MBS employed 675 people. Today, according to MBS, the company employs over 1,000 employees, meaning this number has grown by nearly 33%.

Most of the company's biggest partners are colleges and universities supplying textbooks to their students. Partners in the state include MU and the University of Central Missouri.

BNED did not speak to how many employees were terminated or the reasoning behind it, but it did say its current focus is now "long-term sustainable growth and [aligning] our expenses to better reflect the current market environment."

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