Bringing Readers and Authors Together for More Than 30 Years

The UConn Co-op bookstore in Storrs Center in 2014. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
The UConn Co-op bookstore in Storrs Center in 2014. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

SHARELINES

The UConn Co-op bookstore in Storrs Center in 2014. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
The UConn Co-op bookstore in Storrs Center. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Long an integral part of the literary and cultural life of the community, the history of the UConn Co-op goes back to 1975, when it first opened a store in the Student Union after the University ended a short-lived experiment with the private, for-profit bookstore chain Follett. In 1980, it moved to a new building on Fairfield Way at the heart of campus, and a couple of years later, a young bookseller named Suzanne Staubach joined the staff. On the occasion of her retirement this July, UConn Today invited Staubach, the longtime manager of the Co-op’s General Books Division, to take a look back at her 34 years working for the store and doing what the UConn Co-op does best – bringing readers and authors together.

Suzanne Stabach, manager of the Co-op's general book division, says challenges to books are part of today's turbulent times. 1995 photo
Suzy Staubach, manager of the UConn Co-op’s General Books division, in 1995. (UConn File Photo)

My tenure in the book industry, in the General Books Division of the UConn Co-op, has been filled with incredible excitement, magical moments, and dramatic change. When I came into the business, the Internet did not exist. Today we live in a world of cloud computing. Yet, throughout this whole time, it has been at its core a people business.

From my very first days, I learned from English professor Francelia Butler that it was important to support the books written by faculty, and books by authors who were the guests of faculty. When Francelia, a children’s literature specialist, suggested that we do an event in the bookstore for English professor Feenie Ziner and Ed Young, Arnold Lobel, and Anita Lobel, I said yes. It was my first event.

A 1983 photograph of the 2nd Co-op building which opened on Fairfield Way in 1980. Suzy Staubach is standing at far left.
A 1983 photograph of the second UConn Co-op building, which opened on Fairfield Way in 1980. Suzy Staubach is standing at far left. The original UConn Co-op opened in the Student Union in 1975. (UConn File Photo)

In those days, the early ’80s, the bookstore was in the heart of campus, adjacent to Babbidge Library on Fairfield Road. We looked up books in Books In Print, an annual multi-volume set of reference books with incredibly fine print. We kept track of inventory on index cards. What is now PenguinRandom House, the largest English language publisher in the world, was then almost 20 individual publishers, each with a traveling book rep who came to the Co-op to sell us books.

Francelia didn’t just expect that we would host authors in the bookstore for her. She expected me to come to her class and sell the books her guests, such as children’s book author and illustrator (and Mansfield Center resident) James Marshall, had written. Ever since, we have taken books all over campus and beyond, going to wherever an author was speaking. Authors love nothing more than seeing people buy their books.

Of course, when her novel The Lucky Piece was published and later her book on skip rope rhymes came out, we hosted book parties for her in the bookstore. We sliced cheese, arranged crackers, and made punch ourselves.

Ken Kesey, author of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' with Ann Charters, professor of English, at a book-signing at the UConn Co-op. (Photo by Joseph Szalay)
Ken Kesey, author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ with Ann Charters, professor of English, at a book-signing at the UConn Co-op. (Photo by Joseph Szalay)

Soon, we were collaborating with individual faculty, with departments, the Cultural Centers, SUBOG, and others, plus bringing in authors ourselves. Allen Ginsburg visited during his last tour (I promised his publisher that English professor Ann Charters would introduce him). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, also lured by a promise of Annie introducing him, spent hours signing books in psychedelic colors with markers we had given him. We held a tea party for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams, and a long line of students rimmed the store, drinking tea from teacups while they waited their turn for an autograph. We also hosted publication parties for Writing UConn, the student literary journal that later, with the guidance and support of author and alum Wally Lamb, became the Long River Review.

Meanwhile, the industry was rattled by the big box bookstores that rapidly spread across the nation, offering aggressive discounts. Many independents were pushed out of business before it was discovered that the chains were illegally receiving special and secret terms from publishers. In a settlement, publishers agreed to extend the same terms to all book retailers, and one – Penguin – sent us each a large check.

We computerized our inventory in 1984. Soon thereafter, we were selling computer software in General Books (we did not yet have a Technology Department) and many computer books. Oh, how many emergency copies of Fortran 77 we sold to grateful engineers!

CDs became popular not just for music but also for books. Almost immediately, pundits predicted that they would replace the printed page, especially in education and for children’s books. I never believed this, but I was thrilled to have Books in Print on a searchable CD.

Taurean Stovall '13 (SFA) reads from John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' during Banned Books Week at the UConn Co-op in 2012. (Max Sinton/UConn Photo)
Taurean Stovall ’13 (SFA) reads from John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ during Banned Books Week at the UConn Co-op in 2012. (Max Sinton/UConn Photo)

The freedom to read and freedom of expression are core values of the Co-op, highlighted each year with Banned Books Week. When the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (death sentence) on Salmon Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses, the Co-op – along with most independent bookstores – supported Rushdie. We kept the novel on our shelves and on display. The major chains, including Barnes and Noble and B. Dalton, removed the book from their stores. How proud I felt when Rushdie sent a personal thank you to the bookstore.

The Connecticut Children's Book Fair attracts some top children's book authors and illustrators and draws hundreds of people to campus. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
The Connecticut Children’s Book Fair attracts some top children’s authors and illustrators and draws hundreds of people to campus. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

In 1992, we partnered with the UConn Libraries to create the Connecticut Book Fair, which a few years later we renamed the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair. This year’s book fair on Nov. 14 and 15 will be the 24th. The event regularly attracts top authors and illustrators, such as Tomie dePaola, Jeff Kinney, Suzanne Collins, Patricia MacLachlan, and more as featured guests. The Raab prize for illustration is highlighted during the Fair, with one of our guest artists offering UConn illustration students individual critiques.

We began hosting annual faculty author events, in addition to all the individual events. For this we would showcase all the books published by faculty members in the prior two years, and bring in a speaker, such as the editor of Publisher’s Weekly. After hosting this for several years ourselves, it became a University function, which we supported. We mailed printed newsletters to a mailing list of our customers. We founded a small press, Bibliopola, and published books by Lary Bloom, UConn’s Gina Barreca, and others.

Lary Bloom, left, and Wally Lamb in 1997 at the book launch for Bloom's 'The Writer Within,' published by the UConn Co-op's Bibliopola Press. (Photo by Peter Crowley)
Lary Bloom, left, and Wally Lamb in 1997 at the book launch for Bloom’s ‘The Writer Within,’ published by the UConn Co-op’s Bibliopola Press. (Photo by Peter Crowley)
Left to right, Brinley Franklin, Vice Provost of the Libarary, speaks with Suzy Staubach, general books division manager at the Co-op, about the newly published humanities books during the Ross MacKinnon and Humanities Institute host celebration on October 11, 2005, at the Foundation building.
Vice Provost Brinley Franklin speaks with Suzy Staubach about new humanities books by faculty at an event in 2005. (Jordan Bender/UConn Photo)

And then the Internet, email, and Amazon entered the book industry, followed by e-books.

We signed up for the American Booksellers Association e-commerce solution, launching a website for trade books. Here you can check on events, order print books, or download e-books. Yes, you can download e-books from the Co-op! We soon began sending out e-newsletters instead of print.

The UConn Co-op still under construction on Hillside Road in 2002. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
The UConn Co-op still under construction on Hillside Road in 2002. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Students shop for books at the UConn Co-op on Hillside Road in 2003. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Students shop for books at the UConn Co-op on Hillside Road in 2003. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

In the autumn of 2002, the Co-op moved to a new building on Hillside Road. General Books were prominently featured on the first floor. Our events included midnight parties for Harry Potter, a Twilight Prom, launches for Wally Lamb’s books, cooking demonstrations, and many faculty author events. We brought the hip-hop artist Prodigy to the African American Cultural Center, where history professor Jeffrey Ogbar joined him in conversation. Poets such as Martín Espada, Marilyn Nelson, and Elizabeth Alexander read at the Co-op. We continued to promote and celebrate student zines and journals.

Amazon’s disruptive impact on the book industry increased. They sold books as loss leaders, and refused to collect state sales taxes. They made unprecedented demands of publishers, who began to see them as a threat. More independent bookstores closed. Borders, one of two major national chains, went bankrupt. E-book sales soared. College stores reduced the sizes of their general books departments or eliminated them altogether. Many college stores were taken over by one of two corporate lease operators. Pundits predicted the death of the printed book within a few years, and the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

The new UConn Co-op at Storrs Center opened in November 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)
During a period when many college bookstores were reducing or eliminating their general books departments and pundits were predicting the disappearance of bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the UConn Co-op opened a new store housing General Books at Storrs Center in November 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The UConn Co-op took a different course. In response to the University and the town of Mansfield, we built a beautiful new bookstore in Storrs Center and moved General Books from the Hillside Road location to the new space. The Storrs Center store has become a cultural hub and meeting place. It includes a dedicated theater for events, which we share with the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. We host music as well as book events, and feature local and student musicians. We are able to showcase local and student artists with exhibits and sales. Student-run poetry slams are hugely popular. Most recently, we hosted Viet Nguyen for his book The Sympathizer, which received a rave front-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

E-book sales have plateaued the past few years. Print books continue to be the dominant form. With the rise of the Shop Local movement, independent bookstores are now flourishing, with new independent bookstores opening throughout the country. Though there are fewer independent college bookstores than in years past, some, like the University Bookstore serving the University of Washington, are world class and world famous. Books, reading, and bookstores are alive and well.

For me, it has been a thrill and an honor to be a bookseller and in a position to nourish the literary and cultural life of UConn. Publishers have remarked to us upon receiving our author requests, that few other bookstores in America are as interested in such culturally diverse or intellectually rigorous authors as the Co-op is. We believe, I believe, that celebrating diversity and scholarship are crucial to the role a university bookstore plays on its campus.

English professor Sam Pickering leads a discussion on Living to Prowl during a book reading at the Co-op in 1998.  PHOTO BY DAVID RUDDY 021898B12
English professor Sam Pickering leads a discussion on ‘Living to Prowl’ during a book reading at the Co-op in 1998. (David Ruddy/UConn Photo)
Off Yer Rockers, a group composed of faculty members plays at the UConn Co-op.  From left to right are Ernie Zirakzadeh, professor of political science, Davita Glasberg, professor of sociology, Peter Kaminsky, associate professor of music, David Miller, professor of psychology, and Eric Jordan, professor of mechanical engineering.  The group played to raise money for the Willimantic Soup Kitchen. 1999  PHOTO BY PETER MORENUS
Off Yer Rockers, a group composed of faculty members, plays at the UConn Co-op in 1999. From left, Ernie Zirakzadeh, political science, Davita Glasberg, sociology, Peter Kaminsky, music, David Miller, psychology, and Eric Jordan, mechanical engineering. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Philosophy professor Michael Lynch speaks at a signing event for his book 'Why Truth Matters,' at the UConn Co-op in 2004. (Dollie Harvey/UConn Photo)
Philosophy professor Michael Lynch speaks at a signing event for his book ‘Why Truth Matters,’ at the UConn Co-op in 2004. (Dollie Harvey/UConn Photo)
Wally Lamb speaks about his book, 'I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison,' at the UConn Co-op. 2007 Peter Morenus
Wally Lamb speaks about his book ‘I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison,’ at the UConn Co-op in 2007. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

I am grateful for the books and people that have filled my days. Before ending my bookselling career, I was able to get a commitment for puppeteer and award-winning children’s author/illustrator Brian Selznick to come to campus Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. The Ballard Institute and the Illustration Program are collaborating with the Co-op to make his visit special for UConn and the surrounding communities.

The UConn Co-op has talented and dedicated booksellers committed to personally serving the University’s literary and cultural life going forward. Undoubtedly there will be changes we cannot imagine, as we could not have imagined the Internet. However, this will always be at its heart, a people business.