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From Descartes to Diapers
Author: Lisa Loving
Posted: January 29, 2006

Through floods, moves, and reorganization, the PSU Bookstore is a survivor.

When you think about the pictures of floods you've seen in the past year, think of the PSU Bookstore.

As one of the oldest campus institutions, the bookstore was in the path of the devastating 1948 Vanport flood. Not only did it survive—unlike Vanport itself—but today the PSU Bookstore is emerging as a model of adaptation during tough economic times.

The strange thing is that over the years, the bookstore has flooded repeatedly—in different locations, under different managers, due to different causes. Some say it's almost as if the universe is trying to make some cosmic point. But what?

Few noticed this fall as the bookstore reorganized its tax structure, morphing from a "co-op" to a nonprofit "foundation." Yet it was a watershed event. The PSU Bookstore was one of the oldest college co-ops in the nation; it survived even as the venerable Yale University co-op went bankrupt after 138 years.

In contrast, the PSU Bookstore's reorganization managed to preserve a grassroots structure and financial strength. Run by a student-controlled board of directors that also includes staff and alumni—as it has from the beginning—the bookstore's management is redefining its business model, while at the same time taking a stand against "privatization" of university facilities.

"I think the real high point is that we've survived here for 59 years as a freestanding, independent institution on campus, when there's been a lot of corporatization of college bookstores," says bookstore manager Ken Brown. "The board has been strongly focused on keeping it local."

bookstore co-op in 1950
Pictured here in 1950, the co-op found a good home in the Oregon Shipyard administration building in St. Johns

Portland State's origins are humble and the bookstore's beginnings are humbler still.

Started by students Bill McLeod and Bob Evans, the first student store operated out of an apartment closet in Vanport, a World War II housing project turned college campus. At its peak Vanport housed 40,000 Kaiser Company shipyard workers, making it the second largest community in Oregon.

In its second life, students, mostly veterans, filled the two-story buildings, each crammed with eight furnished apartments. Classes were held in the former city's common buildings: a hospital, shopping center, recreation hall, and the nursery and elementary schools.

In November 1947 the co-op moved into one of these building as the Vanport College Cooperative Association, an even grander name than the college's own, which was Vanport Extension Center.

"There weren't as many books as there were diapers and baby formula—things that students with young families would need to get through," Brown explains.

The bookstore's board of directors modeled the co-op's structure after University of Oregon's and University of Washington's bookstores, as well as the cooperatives at Harvard and Yale.

The original cost of membership was 25 cents per year. "It was really designed as a buying group; they wanted to reduce costs," Brown says.

Vanport was isolated, remembers Bill Lemman, former Vanport student, Portland State administrator, and eventual Oregon University System chancellor. The nearest grocery store was in St. Johns, miles away. JK Gill, the now-defunct stationery business in downtown Portland, was the area's main college textbook seller.

At first, Lemman says, the co-op staff went to a wholesaler to buy cases of items needed by the student families, then added a little margin for their own expenses.

"Everybody was on a shoestring then," Lemman says "This was just a method of saving money—it wasn't until the second or third year that the co-op started selling books at all."

In the end, the Gill family came forward to help place textbooks in the co-op at Vanport.

"Mark Gill was instrumental in striking the relationship with the college," Lemman says. Russ Laney, now deceased, became store manager.

Russ is the one who had the idea to set up a coffee counter in the co-op; he sold his brew for a nickel a cup.

"They started calling it [the store] 'The Home of Five-Cent Joe'," Lemman says. "When it started it wasn't bigger than two living rooms put together."

From the beginning, only members of the co-op could serve on the board, and the board hired the manager. It became a vibrant community of some 1,200 students and their families.

On Memorial Day, 1948, the levees along the Columbia River gave way after a winter season of unusually high snowfall. A wall of water swept Vanport off the map, never to return.

The co-op's $15,000 inventory was also wiped out, according to the 1950 Vanport yearbook. Yet with the help of "creditors and a prosperous fiscal period" the store was back in business and solvent within eight months in the school's new location: another abandoned Kaiser shipyard site, the Oregon Shipyard Corporation's administration building in St. Johns.

The co-op not only ran a store in the improved facility but also operated the cafeteria and a dry cleaning service.

"Co-ops were not unusual—other universities had them," say Lemman, who served on the co-op board for so many years he was named a life member and given an engraved plaque when he retired. "But what was remarkable is that the PSU co-op lasted from flooded-out Vanport until we relocated to the Urban Center in 2000."

For years, observers have wondered whether PSU's Bookstore co-op would go the way of Yale's. That august institution suffered financially after Barnes & Noble wrestled away Yale's textbook franchise in the co-op's longtime campus storefront. The co-op was forced to relocate, and its management decided a private company should take over the store's day-to-day operations. Within months, both Yale co-op and the private management company went bankrupt.

bookstore co-op in the 70s
The PSU Bookstore was a happening place in the 1970s with its eye-popping graphics and tolerance of sidewalk folk musicians. For 30 years the co-op made the SW Hall and Sixth Avenue location its home. When it moved and the space was renovated for Student Health and Counseling, the original graphics were found behind wall paneling.

College textbook sales are considered a tough industry because they represent such a specialized retail niche.

"If book selling is a hard business, selling textbooks is atrocious," Lemman says. "You don't have the numbers, the volume of sales that would allow you to maximize your profit. You're only selling books ordered for classes, so you have a limited number of publications," Lemman says. "It's more a community than a business, its sole purpose for being is to help the students."

At least a half-dozen private companies have tried to set up competing bookstores on the PSU campus, Lemman says. "They always failed."

In 1952, the renamed Portland State Extension Center moved to the former Lincoln High School building in downtown Portland. Everything was in Lincoln Hall except a few administrative offices that moved into purchased homes. Portland State grew rapidly in size and stature, earning college status in 1955 and university status in 1969.

In those same years, the bookstore moved from Lincoln Hall to the Smith Union subbasement, up one floor to the basement, then in 1965 to the Ondine building (where Fifth Avenue Cinema is now), to the University Center Building in 1970, and finally to its present location in the Urban Center in 2000.

John Meyer was first hired by the bookstore in 1959. He's probably moved with the business more than any other employee, only taking time off for a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

Back then the co-op was like an extended family, Meyer says. "They had a job waiting for me when I got back in ’64."

Recently, the bookstore celebrated its fifth anniversary in the Urban Center. It has a 30-year lease, says Brown, and the nonprofit has repaid all loans and debt incurred in the new construction. The bookstore has never been stronger.

Meyer still works part-time at the bookstore, even though technically he's retired. He and the other long-timers can list nearly half a dozen bookstore floods.

There was Vanport, of course. There was the 1995 "exploding toilet" at the University Center building that rained down on the kitchen of Sam's Hof Brau below (now McDonald's).

More recently, in the Urban Center, a routine fire inspection resulted in a four-foot buildup of water behind the fire door, which, needless to say, somehow got opened. "There was lots of water—lots of water," says Viki Gillespie, a 35-year-employee.

"Just the other day, a little drip pan under a plant overflowed," Meyer says. "Everybody panicked."

What's with all the floods? Gillespie doesn't hesitate to offer a bigger meaning to it all. "Rebirth," she says. "When I think back on my 35 years, the bookstore has always changed, always adapted. It has always survived."

Lisa Loving, a Portland freelance writer, wrote the article "Kabuki Northwest" in the fall 2005 PSU Magazine.

The Cost of Textbooks

A few heads turned last summer when Congress delivered an investigative report on the rising cost of college textbooks—a study that was touched off by the PSU Bookstore, OSPIRG, and U.S. Representative David Wu, who together demanded the study at a press conference earlier in the year.

In July the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, released a report on the rising costs of college textbooks. It found that the price of textbooks had increased at twice the rate of inflation since 1986.

Further, the GAO study showed that textbook publishers' insistence on creating new book editions with only slight modifications over previous editions, as well as the inclusion of CD-ROM inserts, has significantly driven up costs for students.

"The GAO report confirms what students have shared with me over the past few years," Wu told the press. "Textbook prices are increasing and are a growing financial burden to students."

The study results are disputed by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), a textbook trade organization. According to the AAP, the report exaggerated textbook price increases and lumped the cost of student supplies in with book prices.

The complete GAO report can be read at

"We are very proud to see that we had some input," says Ken Brown, PSU Bookstore manager. "We are a student organization, and I don't think enough people realize that."