Battle of the bookstore

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.

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.


  1. Michael Davis - 1972

    Thanks for bringing back old memories. But the article’s emphasis seemed a bit off. I was a member of SGC (the legislative and executive arm of student government) at the time–and, as I recall events, we supported the student bookstore primarily because we wanted a student bookstore, not as part of a plan to radicalize the campus. No doubt others had different reasons. But that’s a different issue.
    I can understand that in today’s much less liberal environment, the SGC of 1969 SOUNDS pretty radical. But most of our reforms–sexually integrated dorms, the end of parietal hours, the end of prohibition of students having cars near campus without a permit, and so on—are now all uncontroversial almost everywhere in the US. Even the bookstore facts can be given a a more favorable reading than this article gives it. While the student book store only lasted15 years, it did break the monopoly on textbooks of the three main bookstores. That monopoly has never reappeared. As I recall, textbook prices did drop.
    I think the article overlooks the fact that Robben Fleming and SGC continued talking all through the bookstore crisis–which explains the final outcome. It it in part for that reason that I continue to donate a small amount each year to Michigan’s endowment.


  2. Michael Thoryn - 1970

    Often your articles on events while I was on campus bring back sharp memories. This one, no. I wrote for the Daily and was a senior that turbulent year. The book store controversy was minor and the previous commenter, Davis, has it right. We wanted a student book store to hold down textbook prices.


  3. Susan Wineberg - 1967, 1971, 1983

    There is so much more to this story! It was the culmination of 5 years of effort on the part of a group of Mumford students who organized into a political party they called GROUP. My boyfriend at the time, Mickey Eisenberg, was head of it and later became the president of SGC (Student Govt Council).
    At first they began with a campaign that placed intriguing ads asking “Why Not Dammit?” This was to ask why U-M didn’t have a student bookstore with rebates like those at Harvard and other universities. The “Why Not Dammit?” campaign eventually led to a petition drive. This was at the request of VP for Student Affairs Mr. Cutler. There is a photograph of me behind a table asking for signatures in the Davis book on the U-M Sesquicentennial. We collected some 10,000 signatures which Mr. Cutler seemed to ignore. Eventually, after no response from the University, this became a dead issue. We all graduated in 1967 and gave our energies to Civil Rights and anti-war activities.
    But others persisted and that led to the sit-in at the now LSA Bldg in 1969. It illustrated what I often told my parents: working through the system got you nowhere. Only illegal behaviors got attention. And in this case it worked.
    However, despite the set up of the University Cellar, the bookstore was never accepted as part of the University community. It was not allowed to sell profit-making U-M items such as sweatshirts, team shirts, hats, etc. It was not plugged into the U-M telephone system or the mail system. When Barnes and Noble opened their store in the basement of the Union, they were allowed to sell all manner of U-M paraphernalia. So much for the non-compete clause that they quoted as their logic regarding the Cellar’s desires to sell the same stuff.
    So the Cellar died a slow death, not helped of course by having the Wobblies running the place.
    Materials from this era should be at the Bentley Library.
    Thanks for the memories!


  4. Harold Benson - 1971

    I was so busy studying as a math major in those years that most of this is a blank, except that we students DID obtain the University Cellar bookstore! Up until then, Ulrich’s was my choice…………….


  5. Bruce Weinberg - 1970, 1984

    I was one of the first non-managers hired at the Cellar in 1970 and later became its General Manager from 1982-1985.
    The store did indeed cause Follett’s and Wahr’s to drop out of the market. After we were evicted from the Union because Barnes & Noble made an offer the U couldn’t refuse, we moved to Liberty Street, the nearest location available in 1982. Since we were now outside of the U’s jurisdiction, we could begin to sell the profit-making items. However, the location was too far off campus to be sustainable.
    The other factor in the Cellar’s demise was the inability to get financing from local banks during those years of high interest rates when we needed to borrow short-term money to purchase text books.


    • Marcia Militello

      Hi Bruce – I’m trying to send you email re UCellar Reunion some of us are trying to organize. Your UofM email is not going through. What is your email address? I’ll also try LinkedIn. Thanks, Marcia


  6. Steve Carnevale - 1973-78

    I was on the book store Board in 1977-78 while involved with both MSA (formerly SGC) and later as President of UAC. By then it was being run as a normal company like any other – we reviewed standard financial statements as part of the fiduciary process. As I look back, I realize it was my first experience on a real company board of directors. Great experience and did not feel much like a revolution. Although many employees were clearly former student “revolutionaries”


  7. Floris Wood - 70

    Both my wife and I were students during that era, and we had a child born the first day of classes (1966). Although I had been a medic in the U. S. Army prior to coming to the University I was still against the war. I seriously doubt that the leaders of the anti war movement in the late 60’s and early 70’s at the University of Michigan had a shortage of “radicalized” students. While the war was a very important issue to both my wife and I, our lack of funds made the bookstore pocketbook issue. We were elated when the Celler opened and we got a little relief from the outrageous cost of books at the commercial book stores. It looks very much like whatever documents the writers found stating that the bookstore issue was a leftist ruse to radicalize the campus were reflecting the opinions of people on the right of the issue. As for President Fleming, I think most students knew where he stood on most issues and we were sympathetic for the dilemmas we placed him in on this and other issues.


    • James Tobin - 1978, 1979, 1986

      I don’t think you’ll find the word “ruse” in the story, nor is it implied. As for the sources, they were all written by the students who led and supported the drive for the book store. They leave very little doubt that student leaders pushed for a bookstore in part to relieve textbook prices and in part to galvanize student support for a larger student role in university affairs. See the sources for yourself and I’m sure you’ll agree.


  8. John Williams - 1974

    The good old days. Nicely written account. Robben Fleming deserves a lot credit for his patience and diplomacy.
    Some comments: I was there that night on the front steps of the LSA building (facing State Street) behind the students in the crowd photo. A campus bookstore now seems a trivial issue, but it represented a chance for many of us fresh from high-school (just three weeks!) who had already been fighting “The Establishment” on the Vietnam War, civil rights, the environment and nuclear proliferation, to exercise our ability to influence a local issue. Here it was, right under our noses – symbolizing the politics of those global issues. If we couldn’t influence this process, what were our chances at something even more important?
    A lot of us were disappointed that students went inside the LSA building and caused some damage – this was supposed to be all about non-violent protest – and that changed the whole game. The A2 Police and State Troopers were pretty reasonable, but Sheriff Doug Harvey’s men cleared that porch area with dogs and gun butts. Those of us in that back row got cut off as the students ahead of us moved peacefully off the porch. Several of us were hit pretty hard with gun butts. I woke up on a stretcher in the Student Activities Building.
    All for a bookstore? No, for the principles of speaking up for fair governance. Then, “The New Mobe” and on to the March on Washington that November. Stirring times.
    And so it goes.


    • Dennis Affholter - 1973

      I was surprised to see nothing in the story about the attack by Sheriff Harvey’s troops. Maybe 15-20 minutes after the state and city police left the scene, with no one else in the building, we were about to decide to leave when Sheriff Harvey came around the corner of the building. He walked around to the front, ordering us to leave. Used a big, loud megaphone. All of our attention was on him. We were moving our heads from right to left as he continued walking in that direction.
      I was on the porch, top row of sitting students. As the Sheriff drew our attention to him, his troops–no badges, reflective visors over helmets, silver-butt shotguns, and swearing loudly but not loudly enough to be heard over the bullhorn–came in from the right, working their way right along the front wall of the building.
      I sensed something to my right, where a friend had been standing–a young woman no more than 5’2″ tall and couldn’t have weighed 110 pounds soaking wet. She wasn’t there, but a deputy was and his shotgun butt came right to my head. I think I partly dived, partly was knocked, over a couple of rows of students still sitting below and to my left. I ran. Looked back and couldn’t see my friend.
      Later, others told me what happened to her: She was surrounded by four or five deputies who beat her senseless and opened bloody wounds all over her scalp. As they moved on to someone else, another friend who saw this dragged her away and got her to the hospital where others found the two of them many hours later. She had suffered a concussion and took dozens of stitches to close her lacerations.
      The city and state police had arrested ~100 people without incident or violence. Sheriff Harvey’s troops put about a dozen people in the hospital and arrested no one.
      There was no reporting of this turn of events in the local media. They had all gone home after the state and city police had left–there was no more story there.
      Sheriff Harvey timed his entrance to be sure they wouldn’t be on camera. Someone told me later that the state and city cops had consulted with the Sheriff on a joint operation–and then privately President Fleming, the state and the city policy agreed to move in 30 minutes early. I do not know that to be fact–but if so, it would help explain the Sheriff’s ire.
      That night was my radicalizing experience. Over a student bookstore. And because of it, I became one of those protesting hippies that the Sheriff loved to hate.


  9. William Deubel - 1972

    The student bookstore was an effort to control the prices of the books students used, instead of prices reflecting prices that benefit owners of private bookstores. Like a one payer health system that no longer seems radical.
    Thanks for explaining that the anti-war protests were to influence the “establishment”. I never understood this objective.
    The reason it remained a mystery to me was that this elitist approach from a supposed perfect external point of view seemed self-serving.


Leave a comment: