Spinach at 10 Cents a Pound

By Julie Shively

I got involved in co-op movement back in the late 70s when I was visiting a friend in Wendell who had just picked up her box of groceries from the Shutesbury Co-op. she pulled out a lovely bag of spinach and said that it cost ten cents a pound – even in those days that was a remarkable price. I was hooked and ultimately got Dan involved.

The Village Co-op grew out of the Shutesbury Co-op which was a buying club located in what is now the Shutesbury Town Hall. Orders for members were taken on Monday, cheese and dry goods delivered on Tuesday, and orders placed with vendors providing perishables were placed on Wednesday and picked up on Thursday when members’ orders were boxed and ready for pick-up by late afternoon. The co-op rented a room (nominal sum) in the town hall so there was a place to store non-perishable food. Tuesday night was cheese cutting night when volunteers and the two coordinators got together to prep cheese and bag dried foods – it was a jolly time – lots of laughter, story telling, etc. Thursday, pick-up day, was also a jolly time (except when orders got screwed up..). Getting together over food is a healthy enterprise! There was an offshoot for Leverett where folks met in the Leverett Town Hall to get their groceries. Back in those days (1970s) “health” food was not generally available except in a few high priced health food stores. The co-op was able to cut cost by buying in bulk and using volunteer labor for packaging. It was a heartening time – getting real food, beating the system, etc. As with all good things, the dark days came and the Shutesbury Town government in 1983 decided that distributing reasonably priced health food to local residents wasn’t a good use of a town building.

Other options for local groceries in those days in Leverett were LaClaire’s store in Moore’s Corner and Chapin’s in North Leverett Center. These were what remained of a what was once a more vibrant retail center; I know from experience that LaClaire’s had no plumbing and I’m pretty sure Chapin’s didn’t either. Harry and Marion (LaClaire) Norwood owned and ran LaClaire’s. One day Dan was in there getting something and Harry Norwood said “Why don’t you move in here? We can share the space”; thus was launched the “smallest mall in America”. That space is now the Mall at Moore’s Corner across the street from the present co-op. Harry and Marion were looking to cut back on retail duties for themselves along with bringing in a little rent. Since we had no place else to go and members wanted to keep the co-op going we went with the plan. There were 2 cash registers – Harry and Marion sold mainline groceries, soda, cigarettes, penny candy, etc., and the co-op had the health food line. Dan and I were particularly excited by the prospect of the old timers and the new timers with their different culinary (and cultural) values working together for the good of the whole community. Eventually Harry and Marion retired and we took over “the whole” store (I’m not sure of the square footage, but not a lot!). The co-op kept the entire line of groceries as the philosophy was not one of food (or any other) elitism, but to hwhat local residents wanted. Our motto for awhile was “Everything from cigarettes to seaweed”. It was also a jolly time but obviously the prospects were limited due to the cramped space and the lack of plumbing.

It was during this period that the co-op got incorporated. Although it seemed like a good idea there were some members that were opposed to going corporate. As a member organization with no formal structure if someone sued, all members would be liable; since we were now serving the public it seemed to make sense to protect the membership from lawsuits. At a lively member meeting the vote was to incorporate as The Village Cooperative, a consumer cooperative wherein profits are distributed to share holders based on their expenditures at the co-op and not on how much money they have invested. The co-op was officially incorporated on Oct. 9, 1986; this was really the first step in getting a new, bigger place with plumbing; we started to consider options and get the word out.

Sometime in the late 80s the owner of the land across the street offered to sell the co-op the corner lot and we began the process of looking for legitimacy and money. Although Moores Corner had been a center of retail in town for a few hundred years, the corner lot was zoned for residential use so one step was to get a zoning change. We filed a petition, signed by neighbors and supporters, to the planning board to support the zoning change. There was some skepticism on the zoning board but they did agree to a zoning variance which was bought to town meeting where there was only one no vote. Raising money was the next step; we went to community funders and started talking to banks. The problem was having a down payment. Being a minuscule grocery store operating out of a tiny space, cash was not plentiful. Then Dan got an inheritance from his mother which he used to leverage a bank loan from Shawmut Bank where we dealt with one of the last old fashioned bankers, Bill Fuller who made decisions as  much by instinct as by an analysis if financial viability. He liked us so we got the loan. There was also more money needed so the Moores Corner Partnership was developed to get loans from folks in the community. This campaign was successful and we were ready to begin building in the spring of 1990. It took 5 ½ months to construct and equip the building, and move in the goods. The opening date escapes memory but it opened at the start of the Reagan presidency recession – just another jolt to my nerves! We had done a marketing study and knew that already about 50% of the traffic through Moores Corner stopped at the old co-op so the best we could hope for was increased sales to current members and attracting customers from outside of the area. It all worked, miraculously, with sales more than doubling and some profits. The whole endeavor is a testament to community strength; volunteers put in time and effort on all levels including the actual construction, filling the shelves, working on endless committees to promote the co-op in a myriad of ways. We continued to use volunteer labor in the store to cut cheese, pour honey, package dry goods, etc. We were also able to increase paid staff.

There was a general enthusiasm in the surrounding communities for the new store and many folks were eager to see their wares there, along with local produce and cider. At one point someone came in with 2 burlap bags of belt buckles that he was willing to sell for $20! It was just ridiculous enough to be enticing so I said yes as one staff member in the background was vigorously shaking her head no. We used them in some of our radio ads – listing the variety of goods…..and “belt buckles for a nickel!” We sold most of them, believe it or not, got back the $20 plus and generated a lot of laughs.

It wasn’t long before we started to focus on getting some prepared foods in there. My old friend Marianne Masterton, excellent baker, approached me about baking in the co-op; her partner, BF, got roped in, Nick Seamon donated a stove/oven from The Black Sheep Deli that he was replacing and we were good to go. This, of course, generated a need for a place for folks to congregate for coffee, pizza, etc., and thus the schmooze space was conceived and ultimately created by eliminating one of the porches – a little sad, but worth it. Again the goodwill of our community was key, some labor, some materials and the beautiful stained glass windows were all donated. It became a happening place, especially in the mornings and Friday evenings –  pizza night. What I loved most about working at the co-op was working in the community and socializing with everyone. This is what it’s all about.

I’m excited about the direction the co-op is taking now; we need food and a community center – having it in one place seems ideal.