Seminary Co-Op hosts community town hall

By TONIA HILL
Staff Writer

The Seminary Cooperative Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., hosted a town hall meeting, Thursday night, April 13, to explore a proposal that would eradicate the co-op and restructure how it functions.

For the business to be sustainable for generations to come, Jeff Deutsch, director of the bookstore, is suggesting that the co-op alters its current model.

Proposals to change how the bookstore operates have been under consideration since January of this year.

Deutsch suggested at the time to re-incorporate the cooperative in Illinois, it is currently incorporated in Washington, D.C.; pursue non-profit status; and convert inactive shareholders to “members,” who would still maintain their benefits but lost their voting rights.

The governance structure for shareholders under bylaws, presently for the Seminary Co-Op requires that a majority of shareholders approve key initiatives.

According to Deutsch, the bookstore has just over 60,000 shareholders. Fewer than five percent of shareholders attend annual member meetings where decisions require majority approval.

When he began managing the bookstore in the summer of 2014 Deutsch said the bookstore had been going through a rough patch.

“We were losing $300,000 annually some of the board members described the situation as a deathwatch,” Deutsch said. “We were buying fewer books because we couldn’t afford to pay for the books. Had the University of Chicago not supported us and a couple of incredibly generous members we would have probably gone out of business certainly by the end of the decade.”

At one point the bookstore included three stores and reported up to $10 million in sales. In the past few years sales dropped to $3 million for two remaining bookstores, which includes 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St.

At the annual December meeting last year, Deutsch announced that sales at the bookstore were up for the first time in ten years but that the store still had budget shortfalls.

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, sales were up 5.3 percent and are up 4 percent to date, halfway through the current fiscal year. The Seminary Co-op generated $1.8 million in sales in 2016 fiscal year, and 57th Street Books generated $1.1 million.

At the time, Deutsch said the rise in sales were due to the store doubling the number of events it hosted, the bookstore also started to explore selling used textbooks, and they began to sell more kids books at 57th Street Books.

At the meeting, shareholders asked questions and offered suggestions on how to donate to help the bookstore and how shareholders can become more involved in the governing process.

Other concerns raised involved new members that were recently elected to the bookstore’s Board of Directors. Some attendees felt left out the process and did not think it was transparent because they did have the opportunity to see or learn about the nominees elected to the board of directors.

An email was distributed to shareholders in October 2016. The email included a profile and biography of the nominees.

Deutsch said the bookstore reaches out to shareholders through email and that sometimes it does not reach everyone. There is no way to tell if a person opens and reads the email, he said.

“We have 18,000 people on our email list 13,000 of them are shareholders,” Deutsch said.

Libby Hemphill shareholder of the co-op and Hyde Park resident said that it is challenging to reach all of the co-op’s 61,000 members.

“The co-op can’t find 61,000 people,” Hemphill said. “We need to take some ownership as shareholders. If you are not getting this message you can seek it.”

Deutsch also mentioned new programming at the bookstore to prepare for the future.

The bookstore is currently celebrating National Poetry Month. Each day the store celebrates a different university press publishing house and its contributions to poetry month. Also, the bookstore will launch a podcast and build on partnerships with schools in the Hyde Park community and beyond to other schools on the south side, which includes an educator discount for teachers and book fairs.

“We are interested in our store working for the benefit of the community not the benefit of a few stakeholders,” Deutsch said.

t.hill@hpherald.com