July 8, 2010

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Weavers Way Co-Op: How a buying club became a $13 million operation

First of a two-part story

Taken in the mid 70’s, this photo shows the co-op store in its earliest stage. (Courtesy of Weaver’s Way)

It is hard to imagine the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of weavers and craftspeople that started the first-ever co-op in Lancashire, England, in 1844, at the new Weaver’s Way store in Chestnut Hill. It is even harder to imagine that the Pioneers could have forseen that the movement they started would lead to the creation of a food co-op in Mt. Airy that would take its name from them and navigate more than three decades of social and cultural changes to become a $13 million operation.

When Weaver’s Way completed its expansion project this spring and opened its doors in Chestnut Hill, officially welcoming non-members and members alike, the one-time buying club became Philadelphia’s premier co-op. It had been doing fairly well, earning more than $8 million in sales at its cramped storefront on the corner of Carpenter Lane and Sedgwick Street in Mt. Airy.

In 2007, State Senator Dwight Evans came to them to open a second store in West Oak Lane, offering $150,000 in aid. A year later, Evans would give them almost $1 million in state funding toward the purchase and renovation of the former site of Caruso’s. With just 3,700 members and a lingering work requirement, the co-op was doing extraordinary business at $2,200 a square foot, 2.5 times the national average for a grocery store.

It is almost impossible to believe that the group of neighbors who started a buying club in the early 70s – their website says 1972, but others say it started before that – envisioned the co-op as it is today.

When you talk to people about Weaver’s Way – founders, board members, members of the management team – one of the first things you notice is their candor. They don’t mind being wrong or contradicting one another. They rarely disagree on principle, idea or substance, but dates are less tangible. Many of the board members, committee members and staff members have been involved for so many years and worn so many hats that their history has blended together.

In 1974 Norman Weiss had a roommate who was working at Weaver’s Way. The co-op had opened its first storefront at 555 Carpenter Lane less than a year before Weiss moved in with Julie Allender. The two were students at Temple together and had been involved in a food co-op there.

“I’m drawn to healthy, natural food,” said Weiss, trying to explain his initial interest in the co-op.

 In 1974, however, the idea was mainly to save people money.

“Jules (Timerman) was buying the best deals,” Weiss recalled. “It was price driven. Whatever he found a deal on we would sell. He found dog food one time in dented cans. We had cases stacked up. He found an Arnold distributor that would sell us the day-old bread. That was a huge hit.”

Jules Timerman was the first manager of the co-op. Weiss became the day-to-day manager from 1975-80 when the store was doing approximately $500,000 in sales.

“I brought my interest in natural foods to it I suppose,” Weiss said, “but everything had to sell.”

Out of bins and in makeshift isles, members would peruse old bookshelves filled with a random selection of produce, dairy, bread, nuts and dried fruit. For the first few years there was no work requirement, although members could earn food credits for working in the store. The work requirement was added in 1976, Weiss guessed.

“We had house meetings to see how people felt about a work requirement, and people wanted it overwhelmingly – members, the board,” he said.

For Sylvia Carter, it was her sister Madelyn Morris, the co-op’s first membership coordinator, who asked her to become involved.

“My sister and I have spent our lives being first, breaking down barriers,” Carter said, sitting on the deck of her Lincoln Drive home.

Carter moved to Mt. Airy from West Philly in 1959 when the neighborhood was in the “throws of integrating.” She quickly became a part of the movement to bring racial diversity to Northwest Philadelphia. Carter describes that era in Mt. Airy as one of activist commitment to social change.

“We had watch groups – well, they weren’t called that then – they were called ‘walk and talks,’” she said. “We had literary clubs, discussion groups, political groups, church groups and we all participated in them.”

Carter said the goal was to create “true, sustainable integration.” Today, 50 years later, Mt. Airy remains the single most successfully integrated neighborhood in the country.

In many ways, she noted, joining the co-op in its early years was much like growing the integration movement in Mt. Airy. It was about creating another institution that could act as a social leader.

“It was more than the convenience of having a nearby food store – it was member owned,” she said. “We used to say we are not just fresh vegetables and cheap cheese. As owners, it was stressed that it was your store.”

At the core of the cooperative movement’s principles is the sacred notion of ownership of commerce, that workers and consumers could create a balance that was mutually beneficial, respectful and responsible at the same time.

Carter joined the board and became the first chair of the leadership committee, dedicated to finding talented community members to serve on the board. She later co-founded the diversity committee and helped start the marketplace program.

“I stayed involved because it was more than a place to get vegetables and cheese,” she said. “I see the co-op as a community organization that is committed to the community.”

For years – while Weiss served his first five years as general manager before moving to San Francisco, only to return to the city and to Weaver’s Way – the co-op ambled through its grass-roots period, beginning to become an established Mt. Airy institution. As the years became decades and the milk crate countertops gave way to a new and then expanded storefront in the prime corner location, the co-op continued to function like a small, neighborhood group.

It began a recycling program, an elementary school marketplace program and even a farm. It wasn’t exactly something Willie Nelson could write a song about, but when Norma Brooks decided she wanted Weaver’s Way to get involved in local agriculture, the co-op found a small parcel of land at Awbury Arboretum it could lease and began growing a few herbs and vegetables.

When board members became aware that African-American students at Henry School across the street felt unwelcome at the co-op, it created a special membership drive aimed at the school’s faculty and student’s families. The marketplace program was created to reach out to even more local youth and their families.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the corner at Sedgwick and Carpenter was well known. Realtors began using the intersection as a drawing card for nearby listings, and businesses started moving into the storefronts branching out in all directions.

The co-op was stocking locally grown, organic, fresh, prepared-on-site food, and Weiss was settled neatly into his position as purchasing manager.

He had returned from the west coast unemployed. The talk about expansion that had sprung up just before he left town had quieted, and he was happy to come back even if he had to stock shelves. He quickly became assistant manager.

“It was the same old co-op, just more members, more products, more staff,” he said.

It may have been the same old co-op but it was about to be tested more than Weiss, Carter and any of the board members could have imagined.

A year shy of its 30th anniversary, the co-op was about to expand. It had arranged to purchase two buildings at 608-10 Carpenter Lane. The new space was going to be a café and prepared food market.

On Nov. 19, Ed McGann, then general manager, came to the settlement with a check for $155,000. The bookkeeper failed to show up that day. She said she had hurt her ankle.

The next day, Nov. 20, McGann called the bank to make sure there were sufficient funds to cover the check. The bank said there weren’t – the account had a balance of just $91,147. 

The board was confronting a financial crisis that threatened to put an end to three decades of hard work. They had spent countless hours working to create a sustainable, healthy addition to the community, and now the founders, board and members of Weaver’s Way were faced with the reality of losing $618,000 worth of member’s equity.

To be continued next week.



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