Co-ops: Boon to students or waste?

    With UCSD’s student-run co-ops threatened with eviction, it’s surprising that not all students are at least defending them, if not fighting to make sure they stay on campus. Not all students seem to realize that the co-ops are student-run businesses that exist for the sole purpose of serving us, the students, and we will be the ones to suffer if the co-ops are given the boot.

    The co-ops’ reason for existence is to provide valuable services to students, like school supplies, textbooks and food — all at cheaper prices than university-run stores. Try squeezing into the Food Co-op at lunch time and it should be obvious that it’s succeeding grandly in this regard. Furthermore, the co-ops provide enterprising students with experience in running businesses because they are exclusively student-run; the extinction of the co-ops would signal the demise of many student jobs and of a unique job opportunity.

    Until now, the university has offered the co-ops a sweetheart deal by renting them space at 20 times below market value, and this generosity indirectly benefits students; since the co-ops are enjoying such cheap rent, they can afford to sell their products at cheaper prices and still survive as businesses. It’s no accident that the General Store Co-op sells books at cheaper prices than UCSD Bookstore and that lunch at the Food Co-op is massively cheaper than lunch at any university-run eatery. The co-ops are less about making a profit and more about keeping students happy, and their overhead is low.

    At the same time, the pampering that the co-ops have received thus far is their paramount weakness; the university could easily make more money by giving co-op space to a corporate outlet like McDonald’s.

    Those are the economic realities; the key point is that it’s in the university’s best economic interest to kick the co-ops out, but it’s in the students’ best interest to continue enjoying their convenience and low prices.

    Admittedly, some of UCSD’s co-ops — most notably Groundwork Books and the Ché Café — alienate some students by championing a radical political agenda. The students who run these two co-ops are entitled to their individual politics, of course, but they would get more business and build a better reputation among their clientele by giving their managements’ political beliefs a less prominent role. Remember, though, that this characteristic only applies to two individual co-ops and shouldn’t be construed as an inherent flaw of the co-op system.

    Perhaps a better example is the General Store, which is the only entity on campus that sells cigarettes and also sells textbooks to compete with UCSD Bookstore. Monopolies are bad and competition is good, and the General Store’s textbook business is serving the purpose of keeping UCSD Bookstore on its toes. Students can always buy textbooks elsewhere, but the General Store offers many textbooks at a convenient location and at prices lower than UCSD Bookstore.

    In essence, the only fault of the co-ops is that they tend to appear to put more stock into promoting political agendas than serving students, a mistake that ends up alienating many students and clouding the co-ops’ student-run, student-friendly nature. Still, in light of the current situation, it’s necessary to look beyond the “hippie” stereotype of our co-ops and appreciate the fact that students stand to lose if they are evicted.

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