Textbooks are a critical part of any class experience. Without them, success in any given class is generally impossible. At the same time, textbooks are a significant financial investment, and purchasing books can sometimes be a tedious process.
This guide assumes that you already know which classes you plan to take.
There are two obvious places to start with book purchases. The first is the Cal Student Store, located at Sproul Plaza. The second is Ned's Berkeley Bookstore, located directly south of Lower Sproul Plaza on the other side of the crosswalk at Bancroft Way. These are the two main textbook stores in the campus area, and between the two they should contain all required books for a class.
When going down in person, it is a good idea to browse and shop between the two stores before making any purchases. Prices will be similar between the two locations, yet relatively competitive. At each store books are subdivided by department, and then by individual class. If you cannot find where the textbooks are for a given class, or an individual book out of the class list, do not hesitate to ask an employee. It is not uncommon that a certain book will have sold out or otherwise be unavailable, so employees will be the perfect people to help you with those matters. Also be aware that mistakes are sometimes made in the lines of communication between instructors and bookstores, and on rare occasion the textbooks they have available for a given class are not the correct ones (usually it will be 1-2 out of the total list that are incorrect).
Keep your receipt. As with all purchases, you will need it to make a return if for any reason you do not want to keep a book you have bought. It is especially important in this case, given the large sums of money that are sometimes involved.
New vs. UsedEdit
For any given book there will be both new and used copies. Which you decide to buy is a matter of personal taste. New books will be in mint condition, but they will also be more expensive. Used books will be cheaper, but frequently have highlights and other marks left from previous owners. Used books will come in a variety of conditions, so it is a good idea to go through one in advance before buying one. Sometimes you will find a previous owner's highlighting to be useful, other times it will be an annoyance or otherwise detrimental.
Note that the proportion of used books available will vary from class to class. Frequently, there will be only new copies available for large general textbooks that are commonly found in science and math classes.
Buying Early vs. Buying LateEdit
There are pros and cons to both buying books either in advance of the first class, or after. Usually, the decision will come down to personal taste. Your schedule of free time is sometimes a factor. If you are on a waiting list for a highly impacted class, it might be a good decision to hold off on purchasing books before you know whether or not you will actually make it in. In most cases, however, it is usually a good idea to have everything purchased before the end of the first week, since you will be actively using the book thereafter.
Books for classes are usually available a week or two before the first day of classes. The earlier you go, the shorter the lines. On the other hand, you might later learn that certain books have been removed from the course list or that they have been made optional. If you have purchased these books early and do not wish to keep them, you will need to spend extra time making the trip to return them.
A considerate professor will spend a few minutes going over the book list for his/her class on the first day. If you wait until after that first class, you will have a clear and concise idea of what you will need to buy and what you won't. However, both bookstores become increasingly busier during the first week of instruction. You will have to wait longer in line, and the likelihood of books becoming sold out or used copies becoming unavailable increases.
In addition to standard textbooks, many classes (but not all) will also have readers that will need to be purchased. Readers are a large collection of photocopies that have been bound together, and are available at various copy shops around the campus vicinity (such as Copy Central). A reader for a class can typically be bought at only one specific place (for instance, a reader for Computer Science 61A might be available at the Copy Central on Bancroft, but NOT at the one on University), and usually will not be available far in advance. Long waits in line are the norm and not the exception.
It is important to consider that readers are often just as important as hardcover textbooks. In a liberal arts class, a reader usually consists of 1-2 chapters from many individual books. In this situation, its purpose is to allow the student access to important reading without requiring him/her to waste money buying a book that he/she will only use for a small selection. Other classes, however will make their own original readers (language and computer science courses are notable examples). Professors and GSIs will reference readers as frequently as other textbooks, so make sure you have them.
When it comes to purchasing readers, you are mostly at the mercy of whichever copy center sells the reader you are after. In general, there is no such thing as a used reader - even if the same class is taught year after year by the same professor, it is rare that the reader will be identical from one year to the next. Note also that readers are NOT returnable - do not buy one unless you are absolutely sure that you will be taking the associated class.