The return of Gant to New Haven and their reintroduction of the Yale Co-op buttondown shirt warrants a fond remembrance of the now defunct cooperative.
Founded in 1885 to provide carriage rides, tobacco and dry goods to the university community, the Yale Co-op was America’s second-oldest university store when it closed in 2000.
The Yale Cooperative Corporation, called “Yale’s commercial alter ego” by the New York Times, was an insular institution. Yale alumni, faculty, students and employees could become members by paying a dollar a year. The profits of the cooperative were divided in the fall proportionally to each member’s purchases. This was called the “patronage refund” and amounted to about 10% of purchase price. The back of the 1960-61 Co-op catalog enticed its recipients with the slogan “Join-Buy-Save the Patronage Refund Way.”
From 1929 through 1962 the Co-op resided at 300 York Street. The York Street address corresponds to the Ivy boom period of the 1950s. The decade saw the shop grow from 11,900 to 25,000 square feet. Revenues climbed from $843,000 to $2.2 million. By 1959 there were 12,529 members who collectively received $159,000 in refunds.
Reflecting the zeitgeist, the Co-op eventually moved to a new building on Broadway designed by Eero Saarinen and Associates Architects. The structure was described as a “bold and attractive design in keeping with the architecture of the adjacent Stiles and Morse Colleges.” The retail specialist firm of Ken White & Associates provided consultation on the interior design.
The Yale Co-op on Broadway saw the last bloom of Ivy League Look, the rise of the counterculture movement, and somehow weathered it all. A particular telling sign of the times and a story that reflects the loyalty to the Co-op involves the writer Eric Segal. In April of 1971 Professor Eric Segal was facing mounting criticism that he had become a Hollywood sellout do to the immense success of “Love Story.” Segal’s sincere defense to News Day was, “I still drive a Cougar with a rattle. I buy my clothes, boots, sports shirt, suede suit from the Co-op.”
In commemoration of its 100th anniversary, The New York Times visited the Co-op in 1985. Reporter James Brooke found a bastion of Ivy style in a store that sells buttondown shirts by the thousands. The men’s department was in the firm hands of Dominic Maresca and Jimmy Dixon — Maresca the senior starting in 1945, with Dixon joining him in 1952. Brooke reports that they had ”schooled generations of Yalies in the fundamentals of the classic Ivy Look — soft-shoulder suits, buttondown shirts and regimental ties.” They were standing guard and were “not about to let standards slip.” The bottom line stated by Dominic Maresca: “In the Ivy style, nothing has changed since we came here.”
For many years a Yale alumnus counted on things not changing. A trip to New Haven meant a nostalgic field trip that would include coffee at the Yankee Doodle, a visit to J. Press to see the Donegal tweeds and schoolboy scarves, over to Barrie’s to view the English benchmade shoes, a meal of Welsh rarebit at Morey’s; and a postprandial pipe of Harkness Tower at The Owl Shop. And not to be forgotten: a visit to the Co-op, even if it was just for a crested sweatshirt for a future legacy.
In a bit of Ivy-on-Ivy violence, Yale refused to renew the cooperative’s lease in 1997. Speaking for the university at the time, Secretary Linda Koch Lorimer said, “Yale community’s needs are best served long-term by Barnes & Noble.”
In a simple tale of profits over prestige and progress trumping tradition, the Yale Co-op was exiled to Chapel Street, and by 2000 the supercentarian existed no more. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP
Christopher Sharp lives in upstate New York. He is a former community-newspaper reporter and a veteran of the Global War on Terror. He has served in Navy Reserve for over 20 years. In a subsequent post he will present two vintage Yale Co-op catalogs from the Ivy heyday.