Co-op mobilizes support, works to stay independent

In this file photo, the UConn Co-op is pictured in Storrs, Connecticut. Book sales at the UConn Co-op have fallen nearly 30 percent from their peak five years ago as students increasingly search to buy textbooks from online retailers. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

In this file photo, the UConn Co-op is pictured in Storrs, Connecticut. Book sales at the UConn Co-op have fallen nearly 30 percent from their peak five years ago as students increasingly search to buy textbooks from online retailers. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

The UConn Co-op and four competitors will give proposals between Thursday and Monday to ultimately determine the future of the University of Connecticut’s 10 bookstores, according to the deputy chief of staff to the university president.

The Co-op is fighting to remain independent. An online “Save the Co-op” petition has gained 4,835 supporters, according to Change.org. 

“This process began last year when the Co-op’s board told the university they doubted the Co-op’s long-term sustainability because of persistent financial problems and management challenges, and asked UConn to consider taking it over,” said Michael Kirk, deputy chief of staff to UConn President Susan Herbst and head of the committee evaluating proposals.

On Dec. 4, 2015, the university released a request for proposals (RFP) to select an operator for all of the university’s bookstores. 

The Co-op is competing with other bidders, whose identities are not currently public, to retain its current position, Kirk said. Kirk’s committee will take an objective look at which proposed operator could provide the best resources for students at the most affordable prices.

Other factors being considered, are “ease of use for students and faculty when it comes to online interfaces, information available to faculty, availability of materials, and serving the essential community functions that are part of being a campus bookstore,” Kirk said.

The Co-op is designed, in theory, to answer to the student body. At least eight of the 15 board members (a voting majority) are required to be students, and currently nine of them are. The rest are faculty and alumni.

Timothy Dzurilla, Ph.D candidate and chair of the Co-op’s board, has publicly stated that he thinks the Co-op is able to continue in its current position and is the best candidate to do so.

“The Co-op has had a couple of financially difficult years,” Dzurilla wrote in a public letter. “It was expected with the costs associated with expanding to our brand new Downtown Storrs location in an area that is still building up. This was an anticipated loss that ended up being much less than expected.”

According to Dzurilla, the Co-op’s non-profit model and community outreach allow it to offer services and benefits to students that a for-profit bookstore could not.

“An independent bookstore is more agile in services and how we provide them,” Dzurilla said. “It’s the agility of independents that allow them to maintain their place in the industry.”

The Co-op’s Verba program allows students to search for and compare prices of textbooks through multiple vendors, Dzurilla said. The Co-op will help students to get the book from the most affordable vendor even if that is from a competitor.

An independent bookstore is more agile in services and how we provide them. It’s the agility of independents that allow them to maintain their place in the industry.
— Timothy Dzurilla, chair of the Co-op's board

“Those aren’t things that our competitors offer right now,” Dzurilla said.

According to Verba, the Co-op’s 20 most expensive textbooks are cheaper than those of Barnes and Noble. Dzurilla admitted however, that he cannot be sure either way how textbook prices might change if either Barnes and Noble or Follett (America’s two largest college bookstore companies) were to take over.

He followed up by stating other policies and services of the Co-op serve to ultimately allow students access to textbooks at cheaper rates.

The Co-op sells all of its textbooks for the entirety of its semester. This is not always standard practice in the industry, Dzurilla said. So long as books are available all semester, students can hold off buying them until they are sure the texts will actually be used in the class.

The UConn Co-op Bookstore at Storrs Center frequently hosts, free of charge, cultural events like poetry slams and author readings, Dzurilla said.

Undergraduate Student Government has not taken an official position for or against the Co-op. USG President Rachel Conboy said that, either way, students should be putting their own needs first.

“I believe that opening the opportunity to other businesses could benefit the students very much,” Conboy said. “I think all students appreciate the mom and pop value that the Co-op has and many community and faculty members want to keep the Co-op because of the nostalgia attached to the local business.

“However, with rising costs associated with going to UConn, “I think students would much rather have a bookstore with low textbook costs and a stronger buyback program,” Conboy continued. “At the end of the day I think that the store which can provide the most reasonable textbook options is the best option for the student body.”

USG has definitively expressed that they would not support any company that stood in the way of the adoption of publicly available open-source textbooks.

“I’m personally concerned about open-source textbooks,” said Daniel Byrd, chairman of USG’s Affairs Committee and a longtime advocate for open-source textbooks at UConn.

Bookshelves containing textbooks are seen on the second floor of the UConn Co-op in Storrs, Connecticut. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Byrd credited the Co-op, particularly their CFO Joseph Sweet, with providing valuable information to the open-source textbook initiative and helping them to work with professors in adopting the resources.

“Many of these professors had never heard of open-source textbooks before,” Byrd said. “They didn’t know how they work and they didn’t know the value of them to us. They think that they’re low quality when really they’re just as good as any privately published books.”

The Co-op also gave lists of the most expensive textbooks used in UConn classes, Byrd said. These texts were naturally the first the initiative looked act, Byrd said.

“We are committed to supporting open source textbook solutions on campus,” Dzurilla said. “It doesn’t get cheaper than free.” 

Byrd said it would not be appropriate for him to adopt an official stance on the Co-op but again emphasized that open-source textbooks may be the key issue in USG’s ultimate decision on the matter.

“Because of our existing relationship with the Co-op, we know the Co-op is willing to work with us [on open-open source textbooks],” Byrd said. “A private company may be willing to work with us but we can’t be sure.”

Kirk’s committee is considering open-source textbook policies in making its decisions, Kirk said. 

The official RFP document says that respondents will be expected to “to offer a comprehensive online strategy and adoption of emerging technologies.”

USG Vice President Adam Kuegler contacted The Daily Campus to express his concern regarding another detail of the petition: the inclusion of the private @uconn.edu email address of Eliza Conrad, the student representative on the committee reviewing proposals.

Conrad declined to comment.

“We want input from students on the process, but I want to make sure that at the end of the day our members don’t feel targeted personally,” Kuegler said.

Kuegler noted that it was not too difficult to work out the UConn email address of a person based on their name, but said that he found its inclusion unprofessional. He said that Conrad had been inundated with emails from the petition.

Kuegler specified that he was not necessarily opposed to the Co-op’s bid to remain independent.

“I have a lot of respect for what they’re trying to do and fight for their employees and do what they think is best, but there’s a way to do it that I think could pay more credence to the process,” he said.

When Dzurilla was made aware of Kuegler’s concern, he said he had not known previously. Dzurilla sent out an email later that night giving all individuals included on the petition the option to change the email address it included.

“It didn’t occur to me that would be a rude thing to do,” Dzurilla said.

Dzurilla said he viewed that mistake and the larger Co-op bid situation as an opportunity to find the positive.

“We look at what the challenges are and we try to make opportunities out of that,” Dzurilla said. “Through this process we are looking for new ways people can become engaged.”

Since becoming board chair in October, Dzurilla has created a volunteer advisory board for students and community members to become more involved. He said that his plan for the Co-op over the next few years would include more such opportunities for community engagement.

The committee deciding the future of the university’s bookstore is hearing proposals Thursday and Friday of this week, Kirk said. It will hear Dzurilla’s own proposal, “Making Our Future,” on Monday.

“[T]his is not a referendum on the Co-op,” Kirk said. “It is a competitive process to allow UConn to examine its options and select a bookstore that will best serve our students, faculty, alumni, fans, visitors and others.”

The Co-op will be holding a rally for its independence on Monday on 10 a.m., around the time that Dzurilla’s proposal is being heard.


Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.