A Brief History of the Oberlin Consumers Co-operative and Its Businesses

by Albert J. McQueen



The Oberlin Consumers Co-operative (OCC) was into its 59th year of existence as a legal entity when the Co-op Book Store, its one remaining business, closed in November of 1999. The origins of OCC go back to 1938, when a group of students and professors organized a discussion group that developed into a buying club for toilet articles and cosmetics that also implemented a contract laundry service and a student book exchange. In May of 1940, following a series of meetings between town and college people, a genuine consumers cooperative, OCC, was incorporated under the laws of the State of Ohio. Membership was open to persons from the college and the community, as well as area farmers. Persons could be either lifetime members for $5.00 per person or student members for 50 cents per school year. Additional capital was obtained through the sale of certificates of deposit to members.

The guiding cooperative ideology for OCC has aiways been based upon the Rochdale Principles propounded by the 1844 pioneers in Rochdale, England, who established the first successful cooperative businesses in history. These principles are: (1) open, voluntary membership - anyone may join; (2) democratic control - election of the board and decisions on major issues by members are made on a one member, one vote basis; (3) limited returns on capital - to discourage speculative investments in cooperatives and stress true cooperation; (4) non-profit operation - to prevent persons from profitting personally, any profit ("surplus") is (a) used for development of the business, (b) used to benefit the public through services, or (c) returned to members in proportion to their purchases; (5) ongoing education - to have a strong foundation, cooperatives must educate their members and the public in the theory and practice of economic and democratic cooperation; (6) cooperation among cooperatives - to strengthen the cooperative movement co-ops should work together at the local, regional, national, and international levels.

From its humble beginnings OCC has, over the years, operated businesses of several kinds: bookstore, laundry and dry cleaning service, children's clothing store, grocery store, Greyhound Bus ticket agency, credit union, and restaurant. This has meant much moving and relocating. In June of 1942, OCC opened a store in a space it rented at 23 S. Main Street (now the site of Campus Cleaners), where it remained until 1952. The front half of the store was devoted to the sale of food. The rear of the store was divided into two sections: one half to a dry cleaning agency and the other half to books and school supplies. Between 1942 and 1949, OCC struggled to stay alive as it tried different lines of mechandise and sought new members in the community.

James F. (Bill) Long, who had been organizing farmer cooperatives for the Ohio Farm Bureau, was hired as OCC manager in February of 1949. A hard driving, no-nonsense person of strong cooperative values and keen business acumen, he sparked a series of moves in the business district and in a western section of Oberlin and generally improved the financial status and service capabilities of OCC. Having to share textbook sales with Haylor's Bookstore, Bill immediately began a program to increase food sales, which succeeded so well that before long the food operations needed larger quarters. In 1952, the OCC Board raised capital via member certificates of deposit and bank loans to build the first supermarket in Oberlin, the Co-op Food Store on West College Street, now the site of Dean's Family Store. The store was an outstanding early success, as indicated by the fact that patronage rebates to member customers, based upon sales, totalled about $40,000 between 1953 and 1957. But with the coming of competitive supermarkets to Oberlin, notably IGA and Fishers, the good times waned. Thus, in 1964 the OCC Board approved the sale of the building to another commercial enterprise.

With the opening of the Co-op Food Store in 1952, the book operations were moved to 11 North Main Street where the old Oberlin Inn was located. Two years later the College demolished that old Oberlin Inn to build the current Inn, and the bookstore was moved to 29 West College Street. About two years later that building was purchased by the owner of the Ben Franklin Store and Powers and Dawley, who evicted the Bookstore. OCC then purchased an old house on East College Street, demolished it, and built the first new downtown retail building in many years, now the site of Rax Restaurant. The new store opened in December of 1956, initially as a bookstore only. In 1958, OCC purchased the Jack and Jill children's clothing store and moved it to the basement of their new building. A dry cleaning service was added and the store also sold some housewares. Also in 1958, OCC took over the local Greyhound Bus Ticket agency and operated it for about ten years.

The location of the new store had the commercial disadvantage of being on the eastern edge of downtown, requiring students to pass by many other stores before getting to the Co-op. A site closer to the College was seen as highly desirable. Thus, in 1959, OCC bought the Comings Bookstore building at 37 West College Street, in close proximity to the College. The move was made in 1960. The Comings building was divided into three sections: the Comings store, the Campus restaurant, and Walter's Shoe Store. The partition between the restaurant and the bookstore had to be removed so that the restaurant space could be converted to a text and general book department. The expensive renovation of two-thirds of the basement for a separate text book department occurred much later, in 1979. In order to get possession of the restaurant room, OCC financed a location for the Campus restaurant in the corner bank building. Bill Long and other OCC leaders initially had hoped to demolish the Comings building and build a new, modern bookstore on the site. A financial plan was developed that would involve Oberlin College buying the property, erecting a new building, and leasing it to OCC for 20 years. The College administration rejected the plan on two occasions.

In 1960, the East College Street store that OCC had built was sold to the National Association of College Stores, and all book operations were moved to the Comings building acquired the previous year. When OCC sold the Co-op Food Store in 1964, much of the proceeds from the sale were used to buy the Campus Restaurant, which was, in turn, sold in 1965 to Fred Owens, an African American who had managed it for OCC. By that time, the children's clothing store had been sold, and the credit union was no longer operating. For 34 years, 1965 to 1999, the bookstore was the only business of OCC. But with steadily growing earnings, OCC did attempt to diversify its business and educational activities in 1983, with the purchase of the former Oberlin Pro Hardware building at 82 South Main Street (now the site of the Mandarin Chinese Restaurant). The building was to become a Co-op Center to house several new cooperative businesses including a food store. The interior of the building proved to be less adaptable than originally believed and to require extensive and quite expensive renovations to be made fully usable. Thus, plans for new co-op ventures failed to get off the ground, and the building was sold in 1986 at a loss of over $100,000.

OCC members and leaders were strongly committed to educating the public about cooperative principles and being of service to the community in helpful ways that went beyond commercial offerings. Bill Long, manager for 35 years (1949 to 1984), was widely admired as exemplary of the very best of cooperative and civic virtues oriented to community service. He took many initiatives in the community for efforts such as strengthening education and care for children, helping the needy, and facilitating minority businesses. He made the Co-op Book Store an "equal opportunity employer" long before federal guidelines were formulated for affirmative action. Bill served several terms on City Council, which included time as Council Chairman. Under his leadership in 1950, the OCC Board approved the allocation of some money to help with the formation of the first student co-op at Pyle Inn. The student co-ops and OCC worked closely together for a number of years.

Following the Rochdale Principle of cooperatives being non-profit in character, OCC adhered to the practice of returning "surpluses" (designated portions of profits) to customers who were members as "rebates" based on total purchases by each person for the year under consideration. With Bill Long taking the lead, this approach was supplemented in 1971 by a system of charitable contributions. The membership voted in a policy of making annual distributions of designated surpluses to worthwhile community organizations such as Head Start, Oberlin Early Childhood Center, the Oberlin Public Library, the Oberlin Hot Meals Program, and the Oberlin Community Services Council. Every spring when the annual meetings were held at the end of OCC's fiscal year, the membership would vote on Board recommendations for allocations to such specific "causes". The Co-operator for October,1983, reported that during the 12-year period between 1971 and 1983 over $100,000 had been contributed to community causes.

After 35 years of employment with OCC, Bill Long retired at age 71 on January 7, 1984, his birthday. Under his leadership, OCC had grown to be a vital part of the Oberlin community, for both its civic and social contributions and its business and commercial roles. To honor Bill and to lift the direct responsibility of OCC to fund and administer the annual distributions, the membership voted in 1989 to establish an independent tax-exempt public foundation and to endow it, over a three-year period, with $100,000 worth of Co-op assets. All members of OCC automatically become members of the foundation, a totally separate legal entity from OCC. The Bill Long Foundation carries on OCC's tradition of charitable giving in the community.

The Co-op Book Store was a thriving and highly regarded business in the 1980s. But as 1990 and the 50th anniversary of OCC approached, concerns mounted about certain decrepit conditions and space and other limitations of the bookstore building. Since the store moved into the building in 1960, a number of renovation projects had been carried out. Yet the realities of potentially serious structural problems, unusable space, and high upkeep costs were very much in evidence. Thus, in 1989 the Board began exploring and planning to deal with building needs, initially focusing on renovation of the building. Early in that process, a highly recommended Cleveland firm of consulting engineers was engaged to do a thorough evaluation of the structural condition of the building. The engineers concluded that structural problems of the building were of such a serious nature that consideration should be given to either constructing a new building or undertaking total renovation of the building.

Intensive study and consultations with members, townspeople, representative of relevant organizations, and professionals were carried out. A number of preservationists argued strenuously for retaining the historical character of the old Comings building so that it might qualify as a candidate for being listed on the National Historical Register. However, it became increasingly evident that, whatever building plan might be chosen, either all or most of the old building would need to be demolished. The decisive factor was that professionally estimated costs of total demolition and building a new building (about $2 million) came in significantly lower than either of the options of building in such a way as to save the historically significant north and west walls or to save the front section of the building. At a well attended special membership meeting in April of 1991, a decisive vote was made to construct a new building. Careful financial projections had supported the feasibility of undertaking the project.

During the year-long construction period, the business was moved to Westervelt Hall (now the New Union Arts Center). In an upbeat mood the new Co-op Book Store opened in the summer of 1993 in its sparkling new 3-level building with such features as an elevator, a cafe, a copy center, offices, a computerware area, and copious spaces for text and trade books, gifts, clothing, music and records, supplies, and storage. From outer appearances the business seemed strong, but the harsh realities of negative balance sheets began right away to take a toll on the business. Along with such factors as the unexpectedly high costs of moving and operating during an unsettled year, restocking and running a much larger operation, and the interest payments on the loans for construction, there was also the burden on students of growing inflation in textbook prices, the appearance of a mega-bookstore (Borders) within easy driving distance, and the advent of on-line book selling, which seems to have had a strong appeal to students. In 1993 the loss was about $100,000, and by 1998 it had risen to roughly $430,000. With the financial situation becoming increasingly woeful, the Board, in April of 1998 - without a vote of the membership - entered into a 5-year contract with a business consulting firm, CUBPaC, Inc. of Columbia, Md., to provide management services in hopes of turning around the fortunes of the struggling store. Basically the contract required CUBPaC to provide certain management services and to buy and own the store's inventory, while OCC would pay monthly management fees and buy back the inventory within five years. Serious disagreements between the two parties over services provided and the payment of fees led CUBPaC abruptly to forbid the sale of any of its inventory, under threat of legal action. Thus it was that on November 9, 1999, without warning, prospective customers were confronted with signs on the two store entrances: "The Co-op Bookstore is CLOSED Until Further Notice." The Board took legal actions - as yet unresolved - against CUBPaC and the College, which reportedly had an agreement with CUBPaC regarding the inventory. Now the Board is working to have some other organization buy out the property for a new bookstore. That would be the final chapter in the Oberlin Co-op Book Store's history.

February 20, 2000

Webmaster's note: In the spring of 2000. the Co-op sold the bookstore building to Oberlin College and then voted to dissolve.