Coop Revisits Its Role in University

When English Professor Stephen L. Burt ’94 was an undergraduate at the College, his choices about where to purchase textbooks were largely limited to Harvard Square. Burt, like the majority of Harvard students at the time, used the Coop to buy all his coursebooks each semester.

Since the rise of internet sales, Harvard Square has seen a decrease in the number of bookstores, but the Coop still remains the sole seller of official textbooks for Harvard University classes, except for foreign books. After a significant decrease in textbook sales and criticism from students about high prices, the Coop is now debating what role it should take. The Coop released a survey on Wednesday to all members asking this question.

“We see this time as an inflection point. We want to see what opportunities there are to better serve as we go forward,” says Jeremiah P. Murphy, Jr., the president of the Coop. “We’re putting everything on the table.”


In 1882, students in conjunction with University professors tired of Harvard Square businesses’ inflated prices, and decided to pool their capital together to buy books and supplies for students cheaply and with little overhead.

“The University did not provide those materials and students thought maybe we can provide this function and do it better collectively,” Murphy says.

The Coop continues to run as an independent entity from the University, collecting all information from Harvard courses directly from faculty, according to Harvard’s Director of News and Media Relations Kevin Galvin.

The Coop operates as a cooperative society, which means it is owned by its members and its structure its predicated on a rebate that has certain tax implications. The Coop has over 55,000 members, including 22,000 students from Harvard and MIT, who pay $1 to receive a membership card.

“Going in to the Coop as a freshmen and getting my Coop card printed out for me with my name on it was like I was initiated into being at Harvard,” says Elly Brinkley ’13-14.

The Coop used to serve as a department store and had its own pharmacy, tailor, and dry cleaning services when the Square was less competitive. But its foundation was always selling books.

However, the Coop has altered its product offerings in the last few decades. After the 1970s, when the college began to enroll women, the Coop no longer catered its sales only to men. In the 1980s, more competition came to Harvard Square, causing the store to drop out of the music industry when it had once been the largest seller in Harvard Square. In the 1990s, the Coop focused on being an academic bookstore that sells some department supplies.

In 1995, the Coop entered into an agreement with Barnes & Noble that made the company its manager of operations. Before the 1960s, the Coop’s board, comprised of students, non-students, and a president, made the decisions on what the store sold until they hired professional managers.

“The board sets the policy, direction, and strategy, and the managers implement it,” Murphy says.

While the Coop is still the brand, the software that sells and keeps tracks of the books is Barnes & Noble and the sales people are Barnes & Noble employees.

Through this agreement, the Coop has been able to expand its tradebook business and better organize business, according to Murphy.


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