The MIT Coop at Kendall Square

by Hal Abelson

Originally published in The Tech, September 1987
The Coop has served Harvard and MIT since 1882, and each Coop location is designed to meet the special needs of its individual academic community. Harvard Square's tweedy corner boasts an entire buildingful of books, where patrons can savor the works of a favored Romantic poet or peruse New England's finest collection of art posters. Here at MIT, the Coop brings us The New Boutique at Kendall Square, perfectly provisioned to indulge that world-famous MIT demand for Catalina swimsuits, Christian Dior socks, made-to-measure suits, silk ties, and other upscale clothing.

Returning to Cambridge after a year's sabbatical, I found that the Tech Coop has been transported across campus and refashioned in the image of Bloomingdale's. Only upon my second visit there did I realize that the Coop still sells books at all, and discovered a route to the well-concealed texts.

Entering from Main Street via the western door, you stroll past the Claus sweaters and the Jessica Howard dresses and approach the Maidenform black, string-bikini panties (``Sweet Nothings''). Turn left and squeeze through the gap between the panties and the abbreviated ``Hidden Fantasies'' silk nightgowns. Left again, down the unmarked escalator, about face at the pile of fake Persian rugs, and through the turnstile brings you at last to the Coop's book section.

What an eye-opening journey! I was raised with two sisters and have done laundry together with the woman I love for almost twenty years. All the furniture in our house is hopelessly draped with our teeenage daughter's washables. Yet in one month of buying books at the Coop I have come into more close contact with fancy lingerie than ever before in my life.

I suspect that the new Coop's layout is part of some well-crafted scheme for remaking MIT, and that the first-draft plans for the relocated Coop were nothing like this. Those worthy merchants surely intended to bring us a repeat of the ground floor of W20, with prominent window displays of calculators and CRC tables, and perhaps a collection of those plastic pocket pouches you use to keep your pens from running all over your shirt front.

But somewhere along the line, an alert public-relations expert must have slithered out from beneath the Great Dome and strangled these innocent Coop plans. No, the old Coop, shamelessly flaunting its engineering texts, was projecting a totally unsuitable image. Today's MIT must style itself as a well-rounded university peopled by well-adjusted students. Even Coop window displays of tapes and compact disks might suggest suspiciously nerdy undercurrents. Much more prudent to bury all trappings of technology and accentuate fashionable clothing.

Besides---more effectively than any number of context subjects and expanded humanities units---forcing Jane and Joe Tool to rub their noses in sexy underwear on the way to buying the 6.014 textbook might, just might, distract them from their narrowminded obsession with solving yet another differential equation.

MIT identity crisis or not, I suppose the Coop's gentrification was inevitable. In Palo Alto, the Stanford Mall houses the trendiest suite of shoppes on the entire San Francisco peninsula, and Princeton University is about to excrete New Jersey's premiere upscale emporium onto the Forrestal campus. Even Berkeley's Telegraph Ave has become Evening Magazinized, the street vendors hawking earrings and tie-dyed shirts rather than mescaline and LSD.

But they are Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley; and we---well---we're the INSTITUTE! I'm entranced by visions of entering freshmen eager to get a headstart on courses during R/O week, scouring the Coop for fall-semester texts as they waltz past mounds of Persian rugs and swim through waves of negligés.

Hal Abelson