Union Underground reopens after last spring’s trial run

Oct. 12, 2011, 3:05 a.m.
Union Underground reopens after last spring's trial run
Arun Kulshreshtha '15 browsed the student art gallery section of Union Underground, which reopened last Friday in the basement of Old Union. (ROGER CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

Union Underground – a combination of a free used-clothing store and a student art gallery, located in the basement of Old Union – reopened last Friday after a three-and-a-half-week trial period at the end of last spring quarter.

The project is the result of collaboration between multiple sustainability-focused groups on campus, including Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS) and the Green Living Council (GLC). The project recently formed a partnership with the ASSU underneath the Chair of Sustainability, Sarthak Misra ’13. Co-founders Nicole Gaejtens ’12 and Nicole Greenspan ’12, members of SSS and GLC respectively, first developed the idea for the space when they took an Alternative Spring Break class together about social entrepreneurship.

“We had to develop a plan for a social enterprise, and we were thinking about a thrift store,” Greenspan said.

After the class ended, they started talking to ASSU officials about their idea, and discovered several other Stanford students had expressed similar interests in establishing a thrift store on-campus, including Shaan Chugh ’14. According to Chugh, former ASSU President Angelina Cardona ’11 informed him about the project.

“We [Chugh, Greenspan and Gaejtens] randomly had this one meeting in Old Union and were kind of shocked that we had the same idea,” Chugh said.

According to Gaetjens, the biggest hurdle the group faced was finding space on campus that would accommodate the thrift store – a search that began back in February. They considered placing the store in Tresidder Memorial Union, but discovered they would have to pay rent for the space.

After talking to the managers of comparable on-campus thrift stores at colleges like UC-Berkeley and Clark University, they realized it would probably take a year before the project broke even, Greenspan said.

Cardona then suggested the basement of Old Union as a possible space and put Gaetjens and Greenspan in touch with Jeanette Smith-Laws, director of operations and student unions. But Gaetjens said that instead of requesting a permanent space, they asked for a trial period.

“The trial period was basically, ‘Give us a chance to prove that we deserve a space,’” Gaetjens said. “The idea was…that [University officials] would have the right to take the space away from us if we didn’t do a good job.”

Gaetjens and Greenspan said they emailed several campus emailing lists to ask for student artists to donate or lend their works for the gallery. They obtained items for the thrift store primarily through the student organization Stanford Nourish and from students who were going abroad for the quarter.

They said they received approval from Smith-Laws to use the space a week before their planned opening date last spring.

“We were like, ‘We are going to take this opportunity and do it,’” Greenspan said.

Chugh said they made a large marketing push for the opening last spring in hopes of gaining traction among students for the project. According to Gaetjens, more than 300 students came to the store on opening day, and 233 individuals checked out at least one item from the store during its trial period. Both of the co-founders said the feedback was strong enough that they were able to keep the space.

The plan, however, departed slightly from the organizers’ original intention. They said they had initially planned to monetize the store by selling the used items. Customers are now able to take items from the store for free and are allowed a maximum of three items per visit.

According to Greenspan, the change came because of zoning laws that prohibit financial transactions from taking place in all areas of Old Union except The Axe and Palm.

“Honestly, the way that it has evolved, the free-store model has been working really well, which we are glad about,” Gaetjens said. “We had been really afraid of [not charging for items] in terms of basically creating chaos. But with the item limit and people being really responsive and donating, it has actually been working out really well.”

Over the summer, a $3,000 grant coming from the Green Fund – a pool of $30,000 that is divided out among student-driven sustainability projects on campus by the Department of Sustainability and Energy Management (SEM) – was used to purchase an iPad and a scale. The iPad is now used as a store inventory and as a tool for  checking out items. The scale weighs donations.

According to Gaetjens, they plan to use these measurements to create a visual “thermometer” of how much waste the store is diverting from landfills.

The project recently formed a team of 10 volunteers who will become part owners of the space, and graduating seniors made donations last spring. Greenspan said that Smith-Laws painted the walls of the art gallery over the summer to make it more inviting.

Attendance at the reopening on Friday trailed that of the opening last spring. Gaetjens estimates approximately 100 individuals attended the reopening, and 80 took items. Chugh said this was probably because the group chose not to market the event as strongly as they did in the spring.

“This time, we knew it was going to be a store, and it’s going to be here for weeks to come,” Chugh said. “It didn’t make sense [to strongly publicize the reopening] because then people get the wrong impression that it’s an event.”

Both of the co-founders said they hope to expand the store, so they can accept larger donations like couches, mini-fridges and televisions, which they are currently not able to keep in the room because of space limitations. They also said they hope to become a permanent fixture on the campus.

“We have no guarantee that we won’t get kicked out of the space,” Gaetjens said. “We also have no indication…that we are getting thrown out.

“The more student support that is voiced to the administration, the better,” she added.

Union Underground is open 12 p.m. through 2 p.m., every week from Friday to Sunday.

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