There are few campuses where students are not only encouraged to bring their own horses; they actually become indispensable study aids. This unusual addition to ‘school supplies’ is less surprising at SUNY Cobleskill, situated some 50 miles east of Albany, New York, and located in what Jeri Usatch loves to describe as the ‘Middle of God’s Country.’ As one of just six remaining state agriculture and technology colleges, the campus sprawls over 782 idyllic acres and is a place where the lecture hall is just as likely to be a stable, barn or kitchen. Despite the bucolic setting, as manager of the SUNY Cobleskill bookstore, Usatch has a strong business reason to be at Cobleskill, and there’s certainly no lack of work to do.
The first order of business was renovating the store. Usatch praises her Regional, and Design and Construction teams for their support and for the store’s fresh, bright and airy design – complete with colorful murals. In addition to textbooks and study supplies, the floor plan offers a Tech Zone and a thriving general merchandise and convenience area. Each department has its own gondola, including an equine area and expanding culinary section. But for all its innovation, there is still room for a Cobleskill tradition. “I think we may be one of the last Barnes & Noble stores to have a slushy machine,” she admits, “Even when the temperature drops to negative twenty degrees, nothing stops the slushy sales in our store.”
But some of the most meaningful initiatives Usatch has put into place since her arrival have been more than just good storekeeping. “Rural communities are famous for their hospitality and I really wanted to develop some great relationships here,” she says. Enlisting the help of the college culinary club, Usatch created a regular meet-and-greet lunch program with the Cobleskill faculty. “The lunch was initially designed as an ice-breaker, but it has since developed into an opportunity to talk more openly with the faculty and involve everyone in what is going on with the store,” she says. Since the meetings began, visitors have dropped by more frequently, invitations are extended to join board meetings and events, and Usatch has learned more about her students’ needs – responding to everything from the graphics or color choice of clothing, to the latest trend in popular snacks.
That same sense of community has enabled Usatch and her staff to develop stronger ties with the wider Schoharie County population, in step with the University’s goal of being the area’s major employer and cultural center. The store hosts a NOOK® operation and care tutorial for senior citizens, as well as a NOOK Book Club community, which meets once a month for coffee and discussion. “We’ve had so much support since we arrived and it’s been great to respond to that. That’s the way rural communities work,” she points out. But Usatch’s chief focus is never far from her campus. “You make those two-to-four year bonds with the students and they just become like your own kids ─ and that’s why I love this school so much,” she says, adding, “I’ve lucked out at Cobleskill. I have amazing employees, an amazing community and, really, the very best campus.”