Coop Bookstore Continues Historic Service To Students
By Sarah Lawson | LSU Student
His face is known throughout Baton Rouge — like the face on a coin -- from his place on billboards across the city. He has a slick middle part, a white collar and tie and a friendly gaze.
Transformed into a simple caricature, it is, in fact, the senior graduation portrait of William "W.A." Prescott's taken at the University of Alabama in the 1920s.
He moved to Baton Rouge from Alabama and in 1933 opened a branch of his family's college bookstore — and a Baton Rouge staple was born.
Coop Bookstore's original spot in the North Gate area on West Chimes Street put the venue -- a general store at the time – adjacent to LSU's new campus and cemented it as a university fixture.
His two sons and a grandson operate the store today. W.A. worked until the 1980s. His wife, Mildred Prescott, was active in the operation until she was 97. She died at age 100 in 1999.
"Every day that they were here, she was here, probably running the place," laughs Chris Prescott, W.A.'s grandson, who helps run Coop today.
The new Coop is a far cry from the small general store it once was, selling books, art supplies, T-shirts and sundry items like soap and shaving supplies. Now, the store touts its extensive LSU memorabilia and art supplies.
The store's first location took up the building Bandits and Bengals now occupies on the corner of Highland and Chimes, expanding backward into present-day Highland Coffees. The store front was always on West Chimes Street, says Clarke Cadzow, owner of Highland Coffees and North Gate historian.
"That was the only thing out there at the time," said Bobby Prescott, W.A.'s son and Chris' uncle. Besides maybe a pool hall, rooming houses and laundry, Bobby Prescott said the Coop help found the lively North Gate area in the campus's early years.
W.A.'s famous neon sign hung over the shop in later years, a multi-colored art deco beauty.
But Chris Prescott said another quintessential piece defined the shop's appearance, this time on the inside. There used to be a decal on the counter at Coop displaying an icon that many sentimental LSU Tiger fans might call their favorite "Mike."
It was the "beanie tiger" or "Sailor Mike" — a whimsical Mike the Tiger head with a mean smirk and an LSU-labeled sailor cap. Decades later, his son and nephew insist that W.A. invented the concept of Sailor Mike in the 1930s.
Bob Prescott says back then if anyone wanted an LSU T-shirt or memorabilia, the school was glad to have the endorsement, but the school didn't provide a logo or design. There was no "official" LSU trademark. "They were just glad you were selling something."
There's an old family photo, Bob says, of W.A. Prescott in front of his cash register in the 1930s with a large decal of Sailor Mike on the front — proof, he says, that the Tiger existed before it surfaced in the 1950s, like LSU officials claim.
Brian Hommel, director of LSU Trademark Licensing, said Sailor Mike was especially popular in the 1950s, calling it "clip art" of the time.
"LSU's always been very diligent in protecting marks related to the university," Hommel insists.
The LSU trademark office was set up in 1981. In 2002, Hommel said, LSU unveiled the marks it currently uses and vintage pieces like Sailor Mike went into its college vault program that only a few companies have licenses to reproduce, such as ones in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Coop isn't one of them, according to the trademark office's website.
Chris Prescott says other tiger campuses like Auburn and Princeton also came to use the logo over the years. An online image search will pull up one for Auburn in orange and blue and one for orange and black Princeton.
"Auburn still uses it to this day," Chris says with a smile. The family's bookstore arm reached there, too, where W.A. and his brother-in-law set up a bookstore called J&M (Johnston & Malone) years ago. The Nebraska Book Co. owns it today under its original name.
W.A. Prescott was born in Florida and grew up in Brewton, Ala. When he graduated college, he married Mildred Palomalone, who worked at Alabama's bookstore. W.A. and her brother devised a plan to open their own bookstore. One went up in Tuscaloosa (Malone's), Auburn, Memphis and the University of Oklahoma.
W.A. was the one to move to Baton Rouge and open Coop when the LSU Bookstore was still in the basement of an old building in what's now the Exxon Quadrangle, Bob says. The family stores at OU and Memphis have since closed.
The store's new, spacious presence on Burbank Drive is nothing like its North Gate beginnings. In late 1972, the shop on Chimes burned, along with the much of the block, in a fire police said was started by a vagrant in a nearby deserted Laundromat.
"We lost a lot of everything. One whole side of the building just collapsed," Bob Prescott said. "They thought that someone went in the laundromat and broke into it to keep warm. They started a fire to keep warm, and they caught the building on fire ... that was the official report."
Cadzow says many didn't subscribe to the police report at the time. The popular belief was that the fire was arson.
"I was in a stroller as they were going and sifting through the burned remains of the store," says Chris, who's now 38. "I was a month old when it burned."
After the fire, the family rented a space on Nicholson Drive now occupied by RAD Cycles. Then it moved the shop to an old shopping center that once stood where The Venue apartments are today. In 2004, the Prescotts moved into their modern store on Burbank.
The new Coop Bookstore has expanded its services to professional printing, a greater art supply presence headed by Chris' father Billy Prescott, even a few e-books — and especially LSU merchandise. The family also has also reached outside the university community to attract the rest of the city.
Observes Bob Prescott: "We sell a lot more LSU merchandise here being so close to the football stadium. [On Chimes Street] you were isolated on the other side of campus ... we sell more things to the community now than we did over there, to local people, because it's easier to get to."
Bob and Billy Prescott worked in their father's store after school at the old location. Chris worked in law enforcement for 10 years, but he has been working with the family since 2000.
Will he take over his grandfather's business one day? That's for "them" to decide, pointing to his father and uncle, he laughs.
"Oh, he's going to take it over," Bob says.