The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Browsers cafe on the chopping block: could Louis’ escape the basement?

By in Features/News
The original Louis’ look featured significantly more wood panelling.

With the $29-million dollar renovation of Place Riel wrapped up this fall, the next major infrastructure project on the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union’s radar is the Memorial Union Building.

“It’s known that the MUB needs to undergo some very significant renovations, not just readjustments for economical reasons,” said Reid Nystuen, USSU vice-president operations and finance.

During the summer, the USSU attempted to give Browsers a new look, as finances for the cafe and bookstore have dipped in the red in recent years from a decline in used book sales.

Meanwhile, it has be been almost 10 years since there has been any work done to Louis’.

As book sales diminish, Browsers bound to fail

Over the summer of 2011, Browsers received a small facelift, its first since opening in Upper MUB in 2001. The rebranding included fresh paint, modern art work, improved furniture and the addition of locally-roasted coffee to the menu rather than Starbucks.

“We saw the fact that Browsers revenues were going down and down, so we wanted to do something to differentiate from the other coffee vendors on campus,” said USSU President Scott Hitchings.

From 2004 to 2009, Browsers consistently managed to turn a profit. However, in the last two years the cafe and bookstore has seen profits nosedive. In 2010, Browsers recorded a net loss of $24,415, and so far in 2011, records show a net loss of $49,714, according to a financial spreadsheet acquired by the Sheaf.

Hitchings attributes the losses directly to the massive decrease in book sales in recent years.

“People are either buying their books and keeping them or selling them in the tunnel, on Kijiji or at the bookstore.”

In fact, from 2007 to 2010, book sales dipped 58 per cent, from $300,507 to $127,420.

Hitchings explained that if book sales at Browsers continue to diminish, the union will have to choose whether it is feasible to run deficits every year to keep a USSU-operated coffee shop open in Upper MUB.

“This year was sort of a test run, but I would say, expect that Browsers will still be on [on the chopping block] after this year.”

Louis’ needs to escape the basement

Louis’ today. Less wood, fewer bell bottoms.

It has been nine years since a major renovation that did away with the classic pub look, and again, the question is what to do with Louis’?

“Louis’ is past due for a major renovation but we don’t want [one] in the current space because in the long-term we just don’t want it to be in the basement,” Hitchings said.

He feels Louis’ operations and the number of customers are hampered by being underground. Employees face difficulty carrying food up three flights of stairs when an order is placed in Browsers and by having to use a fire escape to access the deck.

“What would be optimal for Louis’ would be to put it on the main floor,” Hitchings said, “Louis’ already makes a profit normally, but I think if it was on the main floor it would be able to make much more.”

He estimates bringing Louis’ upstairs would cost between $10 and $12 million.

“We would need to hike the infrastructure fee again, and it would have to be a substantial hike.”

For the Place Riel project, the student infrastructure fee jumped from $10 to $50.50, for the next 25 years. Hitchings guessed the fee would have to go up another $30 for about 15 years to fund a relocation.

According to the USSU bylaws, any student fee increase of more than $10 must be done through a referendum.

Realistically, Nystuen said, “we want the dust to settle [on Place Riel] and see our loan commitments” through before considering another fee hike.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged the challenges Louis’ faces working out of the basement.

“Some bands choose to skip Louis’ altogether because they don’t like the venue the way it is.”

Nystuen said money was approved in last year’s budget to replace current lighting, tables and chairs, which will take place over the December and Reading Week breaks.

He admits that these are just short-term fixes but says it will take funding and commitment for the USSU to take on another large project.

“It might be five years from now,” he estimated.

History of the MUB

Construction on the MUB began in the early 1950s, more than 15 years after the concept of a student union building was first brought forward, according to Sheaf archives. Officially it opened on Remembrance Day, 1955, with the unveiling of a memorial to commemorate students, faculty and staff of the U of S who lost their lives overseas in the First and Second World Wars. The marble fireplace, a monument to the men and women who served in the military, remains the centerpiece of Browsers.

Originally, the total cost of the building was $540,000, paid for through an alumni fundraiser, a $4 student fee hike in 1946 and a second increase of $2.50 in 1955.

The MUB was the first building to bring student services together. In its early days, the main floor featured a cafeteria, the campus radio station, the union offices, a smoke shop and the student newspaper, the Sheaf.

Lower MUB, later known as Louis’ Pub and now just Louis’, was home to ping pong tables, pool tables and pinball machines. In 1965 they began serving food, and in 1970, they held their first pub night, where beer was sold for just 30 cents a bottle.

But as result of a surge in enrolment during the 1960s, the student body quickly outgrew the MUB. Thus, plans were hatched for what would eventually be the Place Riel Student Centre. In 1980, as part of the third phase of the Place Riel project, the MUB underwent renovations that included the refitting and later opening of Louis’ Pub, interior renovations to the main floor, improvements to the elevator and alterations to the pedestrian tunnel connected to the residences. The renovations cost $1.7 million.

For much of the building’s history, Upper MUB was a wide-open dance floor and gathering spot for listening to music and playing cards, but in 2001 the space was renovated and Browsers moved in. At that time the USSU installed the current food and beverage bar, increased seating and added new computers.

Finally, in 2002, Louis’ received its most recent renovation, a $4.7 million remodelling that doubled both the seating and maximum capacity of the bar. The renovations were financed by the Student Building Trust Fund that was accumulated though student levies for years.

[box type=”info”] Significant dates:

1965 – Independent campus radio station CJUS-FM (later CHSK-FM) went on the air at 8 a.m., Dec. 9, broadcasting in stereo at 89.7MHz at 3800 watts.
1970 – MUB evacuated during a speech by Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque due to a bomb threat.
1974 – City police seize the MUB pinball machines which are considered gambling devices under the Criminal Code of Canada.
1981 – Louis’ opens in Lower MUB. Only students, staff and alumni are admitted, a policy that is later changed.[/box]

Photos: University of Saskatchewan Archives &
Raisa Pezderic/The Seaf

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