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Students converge on Angell Hall

Battle of the bookstore

By James Tobin

All booked up

It was 3 a.m., Sept. 26, 1969. U-M President Robben Fleming was standing on the roof of the University Administration Building, peering out at the LSA Building. The lights were still on over there. A hundred or so students had been sitting in for 12 hours and counting.

Hovering around Fleming were the chief of the State Police, Ann Arbor Police Chief Walter Krasny, and the University’s vice presidents. Sally Fleming had brought sandwiches.

The nagging issue at hand in the wee hours of this September morning was not civil rights. It was not the war in Vietnam. It was a modest student proposal to save some money on textbooks.

And now a decision had to be made: Should Fleming wait for the kids to cool off and go home on their own, with no arrests or rough stuff?

But if he did that, would he risk a backlash from conservative legislators and alumni who were already accusing him of coddling student radicals?

Bookstore as banner-waving


(Image: U Cellar Collection, courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. See Larger Image.)

U-M students had been asking for a discount campus bookstore since the late 1920s, but one proposal after another had gone nowhere. Any time the plea arose, Ann Arbor’s well-entrenched commercial booksellers – Ulrich’s, Follett’s, Overbeck’s, and Wahr’s — would shout it down. And it was never entirely clear that any savings would be worth the investment.

Then, in the spring of 1969, as the campus rumbled with anti-war protests, canny student leaders on the left elevated the idea of a student-run bookstore to the top of its list of demands.

This strategy had two key virtues: 1) it might attract the broad swath of students who, though not die-hard leftists, were united in their irritation with textbook prices; and 2) it could symbolize the left wing’s demand for student power in University decision-making.

So, in March, the left-leaning Student Government Council (SGC) polled students, and 80 percent of those voting approved a fee of $1.75 per student to finance a student bookstore. That was hardly a majority of all students, most of whom didn’t vote, but it gave SGC ammunition.

A “left field” proposal

President Fleming, a seasoned labor lawyer who knew his way around a bargaining table, had no strong objection to a student-run bookstore. But he knew such stores had come and gone at other campuses, sometimes leaving their universities with debts. And the regents were dubious.

Fleming handed the students an excuse for outrage when he asked local booksellers for their views. Predictably, owner Fred Ulrich called the students’ plan “somewhat way out in left field.”

In July, Fleming cobbled together a compromise that would set up a discount store but put it under the control of Wilbur Pierpont, vice president for finance. This move would protect the University from liability if the operation went under. But even on that, the regents split 4-4, and the motion failed to carry.

SGC’s firebrand president, Marty McLaughlin, retorted that the regents had been simply afraid — afraid of merchants, afraid of conservative legislators, afraid of unleashing “the hideous specter that students could obtain just a little decision-making power within the University.”

He went on to make a vow in the Daily:“There is one solution,” he said. “Students must begin to participate in decisions from the smallest office . . . to the highest policy bodies . . . Only then will there be democratic control of this institution. . .”

Rallying cries

As students returned to campus en massethat fall, the steaming brew of campus radicalism had approached its boiling point. Plans were well underway for a massive antiwar moratorium in October. Michigan’s homegrown White Panther Party, led by “King of the Hippies” John Sinclair, was heaping fuel under every simmering student grievance. The once-pedestrian matter of saving a few bucks on books now took on the cachet of a revolutionary casus belli.

The first shot came on September 19, when SGC rallied several hundred supporters on the Diag and marched to the Administration Building (not yet named for Fleming), where they swamped the regents’ meeting to demand reconsideration of their original plan.

The regents “hurriedly adjourned,” the Dailyreported, then signaled they might approve another compromise, but only if students in every school and college could vote up or down on a bookstore fee. SGC didn’t like that, either, and stuck to its demands.

Just three days later, the campus climate spiked again as anti-war students occupied North Hall, headquarters of ROTC, demanding the military-training program be thrown off the campus. The bookstore, the war in Vietnam, and assorted other student causes were congealing into a single ball of student rage — at least among the vocal number caught up in the rolling melee of events.

SGC called for another mass rally, this time to bring the bookstore war to a climax.

“Only by action…”

Kids at LSA Building, 1969

Students block the entrance of the LSA Building in 1969 to demand a student-run bookstore. (Image: Jay Cassidy Collection, courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

“The issue is clear,” a circular blared. “It is control of the institutions which affect our lives. Some of our fellow students say ‘What does it matter? The Board of Regents (read: Daddy) will let us have a bookstore. Who cares if Pierpont runs the show?’. . . We will not be satisfied until the bloodsuckingbusinessmen who have exploited students for years are earning an honest living . . . Come to the rally today . . . Only by action can we begin to determine the course of our own lives.”

On Thursday, September 25, students gathered on the Diag once more and marched to Regents’ Plaza — but they found the Administration Building locked. They regrouped overnight, bulked up their numbers the next day, and confronted Fleming. He told them he would not negotiate under pressure. With that, the students turned on their heels and marched to the LSA Building. Scores went inside and vowed not to leave until their demands were met. Scores more blocked the doors.

For two years, as other campuses sparked with violence, Fleming had headed off a physical confrontation with student protesters. Now the Rubicon lay before him.

He had three choices, he recalled later. He could wait for the sitters-in to get hungry and go home; he could send in cops to haul them out; or he could seek a court injunction to order them to leave without being arrested. He chose the injunction route, and by 9 p.m. he had one in hand.

Three times he asked the students to leave on their own. They refused.

“A strong contingent” of Michigan State Police stood by in buses — a much better force for the job than Washtenaw County’s notoriously anti-hippie sheriff’s deputies.

At 4 a.m., Fleming signaled the Staties to go in. They came out dragging about a hundred protesters who had stayed for the duration — cheerily singing “The Victors.” The cops booked them on trespassing charges.

Strike! (Or not.)

The drama was far from over. SGC now called for a general strike of all classes for the following Monday.

Fleming, uncustomarily, had run out of patience. He denounced rabble-rousing leaders who were, he said, much less interested in textbook prices than in radicalizing their classmates “on everything from the Vietnam War, to the capitalist system, to destruction of the University in favor of a new model . . . A strike holds no promise of contributing to a solution of the problem. Solutions are found by quiet discussions among reasonable people.”

As it turned out, the strike on classes was a bust. Even the Daily,which had served as something close to an agitprop arm of the organizers, had to admit that “most University schools and colleges remained virtually unaffected.” Attendance dropped notably only in anthropology, psychology, and the Residential College.

At this point the faculty stepped in, offering to broker a solution between students and administrators. After a cooling-off period, that broke the deadlock. As anti-war protests seized the headlines, the great battle of the bookstore came to a peaceful settlement with minimal fuss.

As anti-war protests seized the headlines, the great battle of the bookstore came to a peaceful settlement with minimal fuss.
In the final arrangement, the University was absolved of financial liability for any debts the store might incur, and soon the University Cellar was happily established in the Union.

Briefly, the store sold books on the first floor; then it went downstairs to the basement. At the start of each semester, the staff would erect towering stacks in the Union ballroom to accommodate crowds of book-buyers.

The U Cellar thrived for a dozen years in the Union (and opened a branch on North Campus), then decamped to Liberty Street for five years more. (Barnes and Noble replaced it in the Union.) For a time, staffers were represented by the Industrial Workers of the World, the oldest of the radical unions. A faculty-student board oversaw operations, but it was often hard to get a quorum — student members tended not to show up for meetings.

Perhaps the Cellar played a role in the demise of Follett’s and Overbeck’s, perhaps not, but Ulrich’s lived on — and lives still.

In a way, it was Ulrich’s that got the last laugh. When the Cellar on Liberty closed its doors on Christmas Eve, 1986, the lease wound up in the hands of faraway Nebraska Books — the new absentee parent of Ulrich’s.
Sources included The Michigan Daily; the papers of the University Cellar and the Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bentley Historical Library; and Robben W. Fleming, Tempests Into Rainbows: Managing Turbulence (1996).

Top image: September 1969, Angell Hall, courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.

James Tobin

James Tobin

JAMES TOBIN, an author and historian, is a Michigan alumnus and professor of journalism at Miami of Ohio. His latest book is The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency ( Simon & Schuster, 2013). He contributes regularly to the U-M Heritage website, an online repository of historical stories and images about the University.