Prior to the pandemic, the SWAP book co-op, a cozy little library tucked away in the basement of Harkness House, provided textbooks to students in exchange for their old books or labor. Students could walk into the co-op at any time during its working hours to peruse the student-made shelves of books marked with different colored sticky-notes, or they could search the co-op’s online database for specific books. Now, after more than a two year break, and a move to Tank Hall’s basement, SWAP is back open. Although some of the systems and catalogs aren’t back to full functionality yet, the co-op’s objective is the same: provide textbooks to students free of charge.
SWAP was originally founded in 2013 by a group of students in an ExCo called Co-ops and Cooperation. One of the students, Jackson Kusiak, OC ’15, noticed accessibility issues that many students had been facing with books and suggested creating a co-op for sharing books. One of Kusiak’s friends, Pablo Cerdera, OC ’15, liked the idea.
“[Kusiak] proposed it abstractly, ”Cerdera said. “Not to take too much credit, but I was like ‘Why don’t we just do it?'”
From there, the SWAP book co-op took off. It started in a spare room in Harkness House and then expanded into the basement as the group gathered more books and more support.
SWAP addressed textbook accessibility issues that many students had been facing for years before its founding. The core concept of recycling and sharing books was something that appealed to a lot of students.
“It seems so silly that students did – and probably still do – buy new copies of books over and over again and then do what with them?” said former SWAP organizer Natalie Hartog, OC ’17. “If it’s the same book being used in classrooms from semester to semester, it just makes more sense to share them.”
From the beginning, the founders of SWAP knew that they did not want the co-op to pose a cost to students.
“Having it to be totally cashless felt important,” Cerdera said. “We wanted to make sure that people could get the books they needed without paying any money.”
Instead of using money, the co-op operated on a system of points. Students could gain points through volunteering time at the co-op or from donating old books. First-year students could use a certain number of points on credit at the beginning of the year for their textbooks with the understanding that they would earn them back throughout the semester.
SWAP called for textbooks early on in order to build up an inventory, and they received a surprising response.
“The community response was great,” said Joe Martin, OC ’16, another one of SWAP’s founding members. “Tons of people fully were so excited about this that we had so many textbooks, and we had to find new ways to store them.”
Molly Copeland, OC ’15, was also heavily involved in SWAP when it was getting started. She said that the co-op received so many books that they ended up with a shopping cart full of extra books for over a year.
While SWAP’s emergence felt like a fresh solution to an old problem, it was not the first book co-op to serve the Oberlin community. The Co-op Bookstore, which closed in 1999 due to financial issues, was a popular cooperative business through much of the ’80s and’ 90s. The bookstore was part of a larger system of cooperative businesses called The Oberlin Consumers Cooperative. The OCC operated on a large scale from the early ’40s until the late’ 90s. It included a wide range of businesses including grocery stores, laundromats, clothing stores, a bus ticket agency, a credit union, and a restaurant.
While many of SWAP’s principles were based on the Co-op Bookstore, some of its operations were starkly different. Cerdera mentioned that while the Co-op Bookstore operated within a larger cooperative structure, SWAP was just a bookstore. Furthermore, the Co-op Bookstore required forms of monetary exchange, while SWAP aimed to stay away from cash.
“We did a ton of research into what the old book co-op looked like and how [it] operated, and we ended up going in a super different direction, ”Cerdera said. “[In] the old co-op,… people were still using cash to buy stuff. It was like a collective buyers’ co-op, and we didn’t think that was quite what we needed. ”
Today, College third-year Remy Gajewski is working to rebuild SWAP, and the co-op is still in the process of getting back up and running at full capacity after its move and two-year hiatus. Gajewski’s end goal is to reinstate many of the old systems and rules with minor changes, but for now, they’re working on organizing all the books and setting up the new space.
“We don’t have the infrastructure to really do the point system right now,” Gajewski said. “We’ve kind of just been doing a take what you need, give what you can.”
By fall, Gajewski hopes to have more volunteers and greater student involvement in the co-op.
“SWAP functioning is also really contingent on students participating and being a part of it,” Gajewski said. “The more people that are part of it, know about it, and are participating, the better it can run.”
The feeling of community engagement and cooperative effort involved with SWAP is something that all the alumni talked about fondly.
“One of the things that I loved about SWAP was the community and getting to know these people,” Martin said.
Copeland shared a similar sentiment, adding that the group wanted the space to have a certain atmosphere, too.
“I think there was a special magic in the group that just sort of carried it,” Copeland said. “We really did want people to come in and just hang out. … We really hoped it would be a study space. ”
Hartog agreed that the co-op space had a certain charm that she always enjoyed.
“It kinda had the feel of a really tiny library or a tiny cafe, which I liked,” Hartog said.
Gajewski talked about building the co-op back up to bring out many of these old feelings of cooperation and community. They are excited about the future of the co-op and hope to have it fully functioning by the start of fall semester.
“I think it’s a really amazing resource that these people have made, and I really want to see it thrive again,” Gajewski said. “I’m really excited to see where it takes off from now.”