Co-ops Can’t Stay a Student Center Secret

Yuiko Sugino/Guardian

In a time when almost every business this side of Wal-Mart is posting profit losses, it’s especially hard to be the little guy with a niche market. And if anyone knows about failing businesses, it’s us.

UCSD’s student-run co-operatives — whose $3 wraps and $2 DVD rentals provide an invaluable alternative to the Price Center mall — have proven to be no exception. From 2005 to 2008 — during an intense period of construction at the old Student Center — the Food Co-op, the General Store Co-op and Groundwork Books all suffered financially from decreased foot traffic. Since then, not one has been able to rebound in full force.

Tomorrow, co-op representatives will meet again with Director of University Centers Paul Terzino to negotiate lower rent — and, because they’re paying as much as $1,700 per month while providing valuable student resources, the break would be well-deserved.

Terzino has made it clear that University Centers — which also collects rent from commercial establishments paying far higher rates for prime Price Center real estate — could not to afford to eliminate the co-ops’ rent altogether (as many members have expressed is their ideal). But Terzino did say he would be willing to settle on lower rates, or even establish a pay-as-you-can rent system that would allow the co-ops greater flexibility in making ends meet.

We’re hesitant to buy into Terzino’s claim that University Centers — which also collects a $76.50 quarterly fee from every student — couldn’t support itself without the co-ops’ estimated $2,845 monthly contribution. But as strongly as we support the co-ops, we also believe they should be held more accountable in case they’re granted lower rent.

Unless you’re a Student Center groupie, chances are you haven’t set foot in a co-op since you were required to buy an obscure Marxist textbook a few quarters back. And there’s no denying they cater to a minority niche of hip humanities professors and cigarette fiends. As a result, there are few efforts outside the Student Center to advertise the co-ops’ many strong selling points — which more than justify a detour from Library Walk.

The Food Co-op, for its part, sells affordable vegan and vegetarian grub without the side of MSG from chains like Panda Express. Groundwork Books offers $1 book sales on used reads from fairly popular authors. The Che Cafe hosts shows regularly for under $10. The General Store is the only place on campus to buy cigarettes.

Making greater efforts to publicize events put on by the co-ops wouldn’t hurt either. The occasional fiction and poetry readings might not draw a Loft-sized crowd to the muraled doors of the food co-op, but it wouldn’t hurt to advertise — especially if you consider yourself an all-student service. It could even be as simple as hiring a student artist to create promotional signs to hang around campus.

Due to a lack of consistent promotion, most students aren’t even aware of the cheap curry and American Spirits that the co-ops have to offer — and it’s no wonder a small customer base of close friends can’t provide enough profit to make rent.

Despite the fact that longtime co-op members such as General Store core member Andrew Rubens insist that student-run co-operatives are not businesses — but rather student organizations providing products in exchange for money — the co-ops still have to assume some level of fiscal responsibility — which includes recruiting a solid customer base and keeping profit records. Business or not, it’s the purpose of any buy-and-sell system to at least break even.

Because the co-ops have yet to present Terzino with any sort of records, it isn’t apparent exactly how large a break they’d need to stay in the clear. Still, we’re inclined to say rent should be halved — in exchange, of course, for a simple list of buys, sells and promotional efforts. After all, the co-ops’ operation relies on finances, so some form of rent should be maintained at least as a symbol of exchange.

Of course, instituting these kinds of changes may require more organization or helping hands, but if that means pulling the co-ops out of the red — and teaching students how to run a more sustainable operation — then it’s more than worth the effort.