by Zach Terrillion
It’s hard to get textbooks at Oberlin. Most students have to spend hundreds of dollars on thick works that they only use for a semester. If you’re not in a course requiring a textbook, you will likely drop a pretty penny for a broad set of texts for humanities or social sciences. One can try finding books at the college libraries, but copies are limited, and the due dates are quick. Ultimately, purchasing books for courses remains one of Oberlin’s most prominent financial barriers, especially for lower-income students. However, a workaround does exist for this inequality. It lies about half a mile from the center of campus, tucked away in Tank Hall’s basement. It’s SWAP, Oberlin’s used book cooperative, reopened 2.5 years after its shut down due to COVID.
SWAP believes that “education is a human right.” You donate a book to their Tank space and can check one out in return. Simply put, you can swap texts, as the co-op’s name implies. Students can also volunteer their time to the spot, helping to run check-out, clean shelves, and keep inventory, among other tasks. In exchange, they’ll receive points usable for checking out books. Students have access to texts from nearly every academic department, from English to Biology. Also, unlike the library or bookstore, a book can be taken free of charge and doesn’t require a return. It is yours.
SWAP was first established in 2013 by a group of students in a co-op-themed ExCo. One of the founders, Jackson Kusiak, envisioned it as a “radical experiment,” a way of moving beyond the conventional price-based economy. Dollars become points, with each book worth one. The co-op spent much of its life within the spacious basement of Harkness, helping students find the books they needed while gaining and exchanging points.
It was fall 2019 when SWAP’s current lead organizer, Remy Gajewski, began to get involved. Their friend had asked them to assist SWAP in moving all the stock from their current space in Harkness to the Tank basement. Harkness was dealing with water damage at the time. The shelves and books were disassembled and loaded into bins, with a single car running trips across campus. Despite promising to assist in the move during that spring, the college administration left students in the dust, leaving them alone to handle it.
Despite the lack of help, the move was successful, and Remy began unpacking alongside the SWAP staff the following spring of 2020. Of course, like many things during spring 2020, this unpacking was stopped halfway through. Remy and their friend were the only two officers by this point in time. They applied to be still considered an organization for the following academic year, but SWAP would remain in limbo. Its half-unpacked boxes reflected its halted progress as an institution.
Signs of life started to reemerge fall of 2021, but Remy was the sole remaining officer, with most SWAP folks now graduating. “I was starting to ask the question of what’s next,” according to Gajewski. They managed to recruit a couple more students and rebuild the email list. However, for them, “It was mostly trying to get the space together before actually getting the org running again.” The thankless work of unloading bins and placing stock onto barely clasping shelves. You often need a space before you can have a community.
The space that SWAP occupies is a unique one. It’s small, much smaller compared to their area in Harkness, but it’s cozy as well. The floor’s rough concrete is doused in beautiful, campy layers of rugs and carpet. Soulful lights hang from the ceiling like a feel-good episode of Stranger Things, welcoming visitors into SWAP with a lovingly ghostly vibe. A nook is established in the corner, creating a space for people to read, study, and hang out in addition to browsing shelves.
Those shelves are stout but stacked with volumes. Textbooks for Chemistry and Environmental Science, books by Oberlin professors, classical Japanese poetry, Christian morality plays, and some big surprises that you could only describe as “miscellaneous.” One would need to know the class teaching volume 6 of JoJo’s Bizzare Adventure. Despite its youth, the space seems filled with memories, a nostalgic gaze you can only get in a used-book setting. Of course, maintaining SWAP’s memory was not so easy.
“We did end up with a big loss in institutional memory,” Remy found. For years, SWAP tracked everyone’s book points within a comprehensive, searchable catalog. That was all gone, with the website going down due to a lack of maintenance amid COVID limbo. Years of progress were shut down due to a loss in setup instructions.
Still, SWAP made its move last spring with a large-scale book drive. You may recall the various bins scattered about the libraries and other campus spaces last May. These bins quickly filled up, creating the majority of their present stock. Furthermore, when digging up their space’s remains, Remy stumbled on gold. A Google drive of photos, meeting notes, and oral histories. With these materials, unlike other organizations, Remy and their fellow volunteers had the knowledge to keep the space up, even with the website gone. They were ready to reopen and show the Oberlin community what it had in stock.
However, the specter of lousy Oberlin infrastructure would strike yet again. Water damage had stricken several aisles, causing a further delay as shelves needed to be reordered and books needed to be tossed. When they returned in the Fall, the growing group also found themselves locked out of part of their storage space. As of this article’s writing, they have yet to receive a response to their work order to open up the door, which contains additional stock and other key materials. For good measure, they were locked out of additional storage space just a few weeks ago.
Despite the spontaneous lockouts, the co-op is open for business, ready to answer the call for all the students’ book needs. “Life has really been breathed back into it,” Gajewski cheers. As of now, SWAP has a fully-elected officer board with a clear vision. They hope to expand their influence in the greater Oberlin community, whether through partnering up with the Oberlin Library for its book sales or reviving their Books-and-Beers event, where one trades a novel for a cold one. They’re also trying to revive their old website and have run both successful interest meetings and an on-point social media presence. They are upholding their mission as change agents, planning to donate their massive textbook stock to incarcerated individuals, further expanding reading equity. Gajewski knows “we have a lot of things to do with SWAP, and I actually feel those things will happen.”
While running a stand at this semester’s involvement fair, the staff received a visitor. An Oberlin alum, and more specifically, a founder of SWAP. They were graced by the presence of an OG. Remy had been previously running the club based on archival documents and hearsay, and here was one of those google doc transcribers in the flesh. “It was great to be able to tell people who made this amazing coop happen that it is still running and we are keeping it going.”
The main thing the club needs now is turnout. “The way we run is through membership and people knowing about it,” Gajewski emphasizes, “if people don’t know about it, then SWAP doesn’t work.” A radical experiment can’t be an experiment if you don’t have participants. It’s just a hypothesis, a statement with no action to match. Oberlin needs a space like SWAP. It bridges financial gaps, making academia affordable. It builds community through collaboration. It’s for people who want to change the world and read a good book while doing it. Gajewski urges folks to come by: “Even if they don’t think we have a certain book, just come look.”