Note: This personal letter to the Selection Committee was written by former Co-op employee and bookseller Suzy Staubach and was attached to the proposal. We share it here. And please, if you have not yet signed the petition, take a moment and do so now. And share.
Dear Martha Bedard, Alan Calandro, Eliza Conrad, Patti Fazio, Michael George, Robert Hasengratz, Mike Kirk, Kyle Muncie and Sally Reis,
As a former longtime employee of the Co-op and member of the community, I am writing to ask you to Choose the UConn Co-op.
As you read and consider the proposals that have been presented to you and deliberate amongst yourselves, I would ask you to bear in mind, that the UConn Co-op’s sole purpose is to serve its members, all of whom are affiliated with the University of Connecticut. The UConn Co-op is here for UConn. The Co-op and all the people who make up the Co-op, love and celebrate UConn. For the corporate entities that you may be contemplating, the University of Connecticut is only one school in a harem of schools across the country. No matter what their representatives tell you or the Administration during this courtship period, and perhaps further during a honeymoon period should they prevail, the University of Connecticut does not come first with them and never will. They “serve many masters,” but primarily they must serve their own corporate bottom line. In their portfolios, UConn would merely be one of many. Nothing special. For the UConn Co-op, UConn is not only number one, but the only one.
I recognize that there have been some problems with the Co-op in recent years, some frustrations with the Co-op’s top management, and some misunderstandings between the Co-op and UConn. Communication has not been what it should have been. But these problems can all be, and indeed are being, addressed and solved. Locally owned and operated, the Co-op brings much to the University that a corporate entity could not and would not bring. I ask that you choose the UConn Co-op to continue as your partner. There is, as the saying goes and a senior faculty friend pointed out, no need to throw out the baby with the bath water. Let the Co-op fix what’s not working for UConn. But lets also keep the magic, keep what makes having a cooperative for a bookstore special.
In this letter I will not tell you in detail what you have already read or will read in the Co-op’s proposal: that the Co-op is indeed solvent; that the Co-op collaborates deeply and personally across disciplines with the English Department, School of Fine Arts, faculty, student organizations, departments and institutes, Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, Dining Services, and cultural centers; makes thousands of dollars of contributions to student groups each year; works closely with the local community including area schools, art galleries, organizations, and libraries including Hartford Public; has lower textbook prices than the lease operators; keeps money in the community; provides jobs, brings writers to campus, is a good citizen.
Instead, what I will focus on here is some of what you get with the UConn Co-op that you will not get with a distantly managed corporate entity.
I will start with buyers. The bookstore employs professional staff, some of whom are buyers. With the lease operators, all buying decisions are made centrally in the corporate offices. A handful of remote buyers select and buy books, clothing, supplies, technology and gifts for all their stores. Why does this matter? Let’s look for a moment at Sharon Ristau, the Co-op’s Children’s Buyer who is also responsible for customer orders and much of the backlist. Why is a children’s buyer important to UConn? As you know, UConn offers classes in children’s literature and illustration, and is home to the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, all constituents for a good children’s book department. The UConn Co-op is a place to discover new authors and illustrators. But UConn also has young faculty with young families and married graduate students with young families. These families are served by the children’s department of the UConn Co-op Bookstore. It makes them feel welcome. With an in-house buyer, the Co-op can adapt to the needs of the UConn community and respond. Sharon is actually on the floor much of the time. She interacts with customers: young faculty, grad students, area teachers, parents, children, and the many UConn students who read teen fiction. She listens. Additionally, Sharon works with area schools, not only ordering books for them, but bringing them authors, providing advanced reading copies and occasional posters and literacy promotion items from publishers. The Co-op’s children’s book department serves as a town-gown bridge. And like all of the buyers at the Co-op, Sharon can react to a request, or help solve a problem, with great speed. She does not need corporate approval from Chicago or New York to order books by an author who has decided to visit a UConn class or local school at the last minute. She does not need corporate approval resulting in a time lag of weeks to create a display of books that support a performance, conference or workshop at the Ballard Institute.
Similarly, other buyers and staff members in the Co-op can and do react to special needs, demands and situations. When a teaching assistant or adjunct is hired days before classes start, the Co-op’s text buyers immediately respond to assure the books are on the shelves for the students without delay. When Athletics turns in the list for scholarship students scarcely a week before classes, the UConn Co-op’s Julie Laumark does not say that getting the books ready for the first day of classes “Can’t be done.” She goes to great lengths to accommodate the late request, so that the athletes have their books on time. With centralized buyers in corporate headquarters, this is not only impossible, but to them, not desirable. They have their layers of protocol and procedures in place. There is no local buyer to deal with the situation, listen to a request, or remember a customer’s taste.
The Co-op can say “Yes” without the red tape of corporate distant management. Hang up the Teale lecture poster and keep it up all year? The answer is “Yes.” Can a student group hold a poetry slam in the theater? The answer is “Yes.” Can the town’s Santa have a spot in the bookstore? The answer is “Yes.” Can the jazz band store their drums in the bookstore between performances? The answer is “Yes.” Can athletics use the conference room before a game? The answer is “Yes.” Can the Community School for the Arts have a student art show and reception in the bookstore? The answer is “Yes.” All these yeses are made quickly, in order to best serve UConn.
There are many everyday small things that the Co-op does that, in the larger world, go unnoticed. For instance, when a Ballard performance attracts a larger audience than anticipated, Co-op staff cheerfully move fixtures away from the folding doors between the theater and bookstore and help set up chairs in the cleared space. During the design process, it was Co-op staff, myself actually, who asked for this flexibility. For a corporate lease operator, however, sales per square foot are the holy grail, not the success of a UConn puppetry performance.
Or think about the mural on that same wall I just spoke of. The architects were going to put a commercial wallpaper design on it. But we thought: we are surrounded by art students and faculty, let’s ask them if they would like the opportunity to design a large mural. The result was a wonderful collaboration between the bookstore, the museum, and the illustration students in the School of Fine Arts and resulted in a spectacular mural, but more importantly an extraordinary learning experience for the students. In fact, the faculty shared that it was a learning experience for them too. Had the bookstore been run by a lease operator, the mural would not have happened.
I also want to point out to you, that when we talk about what the Co-op does, and will continue to do should you choose the Co-op, and what the lease operators say they will do, we are not talking about the exact same things. For instance, one collaborative project, of which I am personally proud, is the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair. This is a project of the UConn Libraries and the UConn Co-op, as Martha will tell you. It has been suggested to me, that a Barnes & Noble College Division store or Follett could replace the Co-op in this endeavor. Sure, they order books. But the Co-op’s role is far greater than buying and selling books. The Co-op was not only an initiator and founder of the Fair, but Co-op staff members are deeply involved, through personal relationships with publicists and authors and illustrators in bringing authors and illustrators to the book fair. Co-op staff write and produce the programs, obtain costume characters, create the autograph and presentation schedule, handle autograph lines, order, receive and display the books, handle all the sales, go into the schools with books and authors, take photos, write thank you letters, report to the New York Times Bestseller List (very important to authors & publishers), work with media, whatever else needs to be done, and take a leadership role. The Co-op devotes substantial resources – staffing, equipment, and money – to the Book Fair. And on top of this, it donates 20% of the gross sales to the Book Fair and NCLC. Without the Co-op, the UConn Libraries would have to vastly increase the resources and staffing it devotes to the Fair. In fact, there are no state level book fairs that are supported by lease-operated bookstores. Independents have a good reputation and the Co-op in particular has a good reputation when it comes to treating authors and illustrators well. Authors and illustrators participating in the book fair need to know in advance that they will be pampered. And that special pampering that the Co-op provides, reflects well on UConn and the Collection. And authors and illustrators gossip. Word gets out.
Not only would B&N or Follett or Amazon, not be able to bring to the Book Fair what the Co-op has brought these past 24 years, executives in their corporate headquarters would not embrace such a labor intensive and non-income producing enterprise with the devotion and fervor that the Co-op has.
The UConn Co-op is about personal commitment. It is about many relationships with students and faculty. I was honored by the many relationships and collaborations I enjoyed during my tenure at the bookstore. I will always cherish my UConn friends and experiences. Today, the UConn Co-op staff is deeply committed to continuing to foster these relationships and partnerships.
We all want what is best for the students and what is best for UConn. I think letting the students keep their co-operative bookstore is in their best interest. UConn can choose B&N for 5 years and change to Follett at the end of the contract if they are not pleased. But UConn cannot choose a B&N or Follett and then say at the end of five years, it wants the Co-op back. There would be no Co-op to bring back.
I have been very impressed with the present Board, and especially the Chair Tim Dzurilla, that the Co-op has had in place since September. Their work has been impressive. They are exactly the kind of students and young faculty that would make any university proud. How wonderful that they are part of UConn. I am confident in their leadership, dazzled, actually, at the work they have done, and appreciate the plans they have put in place to conduct a search for the general manager who will guide the Co-op in the next years. I am confident in the UConn Co-op’s ability serve and thrive going forward. I hope that you and the Administration see the performance of this Board as a huge step forward for the Co-op. I am pleased, too, that they are putting in place measures that will ensure this continued good work.
I was startled to hear Scott Jordan characterize the University’s relationship with the Co-op as a “real estate deal.” We have never understood it to be that. The Co-op was not founded or designed as a “real estate” deal. Indeed, from the founding, the mandate was for the Co-op to be far more than merely a venue for retail. The Co-op was instead given a mission of service to students and has taken that charge seriously, working hard to add to the cultural life of students and faculty.
Friends and Committee Members, I ask you to Choose the Co-op, UConn’s devoted friend and supporter; UConn’s partner of forty years; UConn’s locally owned and operated, student-run Co-op, as the bookstore. I ask you to say Yes to the UConn Co-op and No to outside corporate entities. I ask you to support a future in which the UConn Co-op and the University of Connecticut work together for the good of the entire “UConn Nation.”