After 14 Years, Oberlin Gets Another Book Co-op

Duncan Standish, Staff Writer

A new book-focused cooperative, the first of its kind since the Co-op Book Store closed in 1999, is set to launch this week. Its first event — Beerz4Books, where students can trade textbooks for beer — is scheduled for May 10, time and place yet to be announced.

Student Work And Power will begin as a textbook exchange for Oberlin students, but its organizers hope it can grow to provide all types of literary resources and events for the wider Oberlin community. The group will sublet a currently unused room in the basement of Harkness from the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association and convert it into a place to enjoy and exchange books.

Sarah Johnson, OSCA history coordinator and one of SWAP’s founders, said the group hopes to revitalize the cooperative trend that took hold of Oberlin in the ’60s and ’70s. During that era, there were co-ops for grocery stores, restaurants, laundry and dry cleaning, bookstores, and children’s clothing stores, all organized under the umbrella organization of the Oberlin Consumers Cooperative.

“I could not believe that 20 years ago, co-ops were such an essential part of the economy in Oberlin,” said Johnson. “I think there’s definitely an impulse in the group to make [cooperatives] part of the economy again.”

In an effort to make exchange easier and to determine a book’s worth past its market value, SWAP founders have devised their own valuation system. A book’s credit value will be negotiated between the staff person and the member based on its usefulness, condition, market value and “awesomeness.”

College sophomore Jackson Kusiak first suggested a new book co-op two months ago during a meeting of the new Co-ops and Cooperation ExCo. Since then, a group of eight students has been meeting once a week to discuss planning and logistics. They now have a functioning website and are working on Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The group’s mission statement includes a declaration of commitment to the Rochdale principles of cooperation, the permaculture principles of sustainability and the human right of education. Pablo Cerdera, College sophomore and SWAP organizer, said the statement is a framework for the co-op’s future expansion into the Oberlin community.

“We envision it getting a lot bigger than it is now, and we want it to run on ethical and cooperative principles,” said Cerdera. “We want to try to do something that’s going to be beneficial for the community as a whole and we want those benefits to be equally distributed among everybody who is a part of it. We’ve been talking a lot with the people down at MindFair books and trying to figure out ways in which, as we grow, we can be in noncompetition with them and help to provide services that they’re not providing.”

SWAP’s central goal of becoming a resource for both the College and community is also its biggest dilemma. The group has not filed with the College administration as an official student organization and so cannot petition the Student Finance Committee for funding. However, if they become an official school group, they cannot use SFC money for work outside of the College community.

So far, the group has been getting money from the Bill Long Foundation — named for a former head of the Oberlin Consumers Cooperative — and the OSCA foundation. Cerdera remains optimistic that SWAP can get adequate financing to be able to grow.

“We’ve talked about incorporating and becoming a completely independent entity, similar to OSCA. Once we’ve done that it’s actually a lot easier to write grants and grant proposals,” said Cerdera, citing as sources of funding a number of organizations whose express mission is to help new co-ops.

Cerdera has another, more personal motive for being involved with SWAP, which he emphasized is not representative of the larger SWAP organization.

“My ultimate goal is to kick out Barnes & Noble and take their space,” he said. “I want to buy their space and put a new cooperative back in that space, because it’s a co-op space and it should still be one.”

The Co-op Book Store that closed in 1999 was originally located where Oberlin’s campus bookstore, operated by Barnes & Noble Booksellers, now stands. The CBS closed, according to Sarah Johnson, because it was required to renovate its building at the same time as the rise of Amazon as a bookseller.

“My assessment of what happened is that having the infusion of capital necessary to move into a new space was a big stress on the organization, and then that was exactly when the dotcom burst happened,” she said.

But while many members continue looking backward to past co-ops for lessons and inspiration, they are also focusing on the future. Devon Wells, College sophomore and SWAP’s website designer, emphasized the positive effect the organization will have on the community.

“We’re really interested in trying to broaden knowledge-sharing on the whole. And I think the book co-op is the very much the first step in doing that. It made a lot of sense to us— obviously, many people can’t afford to buy expensive textbooks or books in general,” he said.

Joe Martin, College  first-year and SWAP’s inventory and database manager, sees potential for the idea to grow past the city’s boundaries.

“We’re hoping that this can be something that grows to other college campuses, and that this is something that is going to get a lot more people interested in cooperation,” said Martin.