After 40 years of service, the University of Connecticut Co-op is battling to remain as school bookstore.
In January, the Co-op’s board of directors approached the university with doubts about its long-term sustainability.
The store projected $500,000 to $600,000 losses, according to Bill Simpson, Co-op president and chief operating officer. By April, losses were reduced to $93,000, Simpson said.
Despite improvement and months of negotiation, the university wanted to explore other options, according to university spokesperson, Stephanie Reitz.
This week, UConn announced a proposal allowing national stores to compete for the Co-op’s spot. The Co-op can participate in the bid as well, according to Scott Jordan, UConn Co-op executive vice president for administration and chief financial officer.
“They are looking to explore what options they have for bookstore operators,” Timothy Dzurilla, graduate student and chair of the Co-op board of directors, said.
A committee of faculty, staff, students and alumni will review the company proposals, according to Jordan. Prospective operators will be asked to discuss strategies to reduce the cost of textbooks and provide high quality, efficient and easy-to use service to, faculty, staff, visitors, fans, alumni and others regarding the ordering and buying of textbooks, trade books and Husky gear, Jordan said.
The two most common corporate bookstores are Barnes & Noble and Follett. They operate 900 and 1,500 stores nationwide respectively, and may be considerations for UConn, Dzurilla said.
However, replacement would affect educational costs and disrupt the bookstore’s community function, Dzurilla said.
Co-op officials believe they can serve UConn more effectively than large, for-profit national corporations.
“We try to support the students in many different ways,” Dzurilla said.
Simpson said if the University contracts with a large organization and replaces the Co-op, communities would face a string of negative consequences.
A point of concern for students would be a rise in textbook prices, Simpson said. The Co-op operates under student-friendly policies in the purchase and return of books, and a large corporation doesn’t favor student satisfaction.
“Students end up paying for whatever deal the university strikes,” Simpson said.
Simpson emphasized that while corporations may be more financially oriented, the Co-op is geared towards community service and student satisfaction.
“Our owners are the students and that’s our focus,” Simpson said, citing the store’s patronage rebate plan. “Our money will stay within the community,” Simpson said.
In addition to financial benefits, UConn students hold jurisdiction over the Co-op’s operation. Students currently occupy 10 out of 15 seats on the board of directors. A national corporation would not allow such heavy student involvement, according to Simpson.
“Students will be cut out of another thing on campus where they don’t have a voice,” Simpson said. “I report to the students.”
At the start of each semester, extra workers are hired to accommodate for increased store activity. A large organization may cut jobs significantly after the initial shopping waves, while the Co-op retains most workers, according to Simpson.
“It’s a reflection of our beliefs and motives rather than policy,” Simpson said.
UConn Co-op officials believe the bookstore acts as a cultural anchor not only for Storrs, but people across Connecticut. Statewide, the Co-op serves 10 locations with specialized merchandise for its area. A large corporation could not maintain unique service and products for each, according to Dzurilla.
“The Stamford campus needs different merchandise than the type the Waterbury campus needs,” Dzurilla said.
Outside of essential services the Co-op helps mold and form communities, Marcia Firsick, UConn Co-op marketing manager, said.
“We created a vibrant bookstore in Storrs center,” Marcia said. “It was a monumental step in making sure Storrs center really happened.”
Alexander Pietruszewski, fifth-semester chemical engineering major, believes in the importance of a genuine student-bookstore relationship.
“As soon as you step in, you can tell that it really is a part of UConn, Pietruszewski said. “I feel as though it would be difficult to recreate that atmosphere if it were replaced by a larger company that was focused on maximizing profits rather than on giving back to the students.”
Unlike the Co-op, big business isn’t well suited towards fostering large amounts of community interaction because they have no incentive for it, according to Simpson.
“We give money to so many different organizations on campus and here’s the thing - they depend on it,” Simpson said.
The Co-op helps student projects and events that cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. It funds scholarships, the Dodd Center and others, according to Simpson. Large for-profit corporations are gaining presence amongst college stores, while smaller co-ops across the country face similar problems as they get swallowed up, making community interaction superficial, Simpson said.
UConn Co-op officials value their close connection with Storrs and other communities.
“The people factor is so underestimated,” Marcia said. “It’s people to people. It’s definitely faces and not just generic. You’re going to have more of a cookie cutter store with a big-box approach.”
UConn students also value their relationship with the Co-op and are troubled by the potential corporate, for-profit nature of a replacement.
“Though I can’t really offer any suggestions for fixing the financial issues the Co-op is having, I think replacing the Co-op with another corporation would further the corporatization of the university that we are already struggling to control,” Matt Brush, third semester women’s, gender, and sexuality studies major, said.
For many students, including Brush, the Co-op has been a place where their first memories of being a Husky were made.
“I think the loss of the Co-op would leave a big hole in Storrs campus,” Brush said. “Some of my first memories of coming to UConn were made at the Co-op with my family, buying all the necessary Husky merchandise and last minute books.”
For Pietruszewski, the Co-op’s importance and role in the community is often overlooked.
“The Co-op belongs at UConn and it feels like most people may not appreciate it while its here, Pietruszewski said. “But they would absolutely notice that a little piece of UConn was gone if it were replaced.
Stone Li is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.