It was in 1972 that several West Mt. Airy residents dissatisfied with the quality and prices of food in area supermarkets, started a food-buying group in a church basement.
It was during the summer and fall of 1972 that several West Mt. Airy residents who were dissatisfied with the quality and prices of food in area supermarkets, particularly regarding produce, started a food-buying group operated out of the basement of Summit Presbyterian Church at Westview and Greene streets.
Periodically, a member would go down to the Food Distribution Center in South Philadelphia to buy food at a reduced rate and bring it back for the members. But then one member, Jules Timerman, had a more ambitious idea. He was convinced that Mt. Airy residents would support a full-fledged cooperative market, owned and run by the members.
He turned out to be right. And this year, the Weavers Way food cooperative is celebrating its 50th year of doing business.
And that business is thriving. Weavers Way now has three stores, 25,000 members from 11,000 households, and a growth rate that nets about 50 new members each month.
All of them have a vested interest in the well-being of the store they belong to, and most also value the sense of community that comes with that. Part of the co-op’s mission is to build and support that community and its economy – something its focus is on local food systems helps to accomplish. The stores now have more than 300 food vendors from the Philadelphia area.
“They stay true to their mission,” said member Suzanne Brennan, who joined about 30 years ago. “The food is fresh, they support local food suppliers, and they produce jobs for local people at a living wage. The workers are always pleasant and they do a great job.”
“No one can touch us when it comes to locally sourced foods,” Jon Roesser, Weavers Way general manager for the past eight years said last week. “We have many consumers in this area who want to support local stores. Kilian's, for example, instead of Home Depot.”
Still, competition is fierce.
“We compete with everyone who sells food — including restaurants, farmers markets, supermarkets and grocery stores,” Roesser said. “There is only a certain amount of food dollars out there. And then there’s the biggest challenge, the surge in the cost of goods caused by inflation.
“Some retailers are better than others at holding prices down,” he continued. “Big corporate supermarket chains have an extremely thin profit margin, but they augment it by selling consumer data, which produces billions of dollars in profits. And they have slotting feeds (money paid by companies to get their products on supermarket shelves). We don't do either one.”
And Weavers Way simply can’t compete when it comes to size. The Mt. Airy store, located in a two-story row house building, is just 3,500 square feet, while the Chestnut Hill store has 4,800 and Ambler has 12,000. The average modern supermarket, meanwhile, is more than four times larger than the Ambler store – at 55,000 square feet.
How it all happened
It would have been mind-boggling for Timerman, the co-op’s first evangelist – who built the whole thing from scratch.
Timerman promoted the idea, word of mouth spread, and people began chipping in $10 each. Pretty soon he had enough to rent an old deli at 555 Carpenter Lane. He stocked it with deli products and produce, and opened for business on Jan. 13, 1973.
The group chose to name the new co-op Weavers Way, as an homage to a collective of 28 weavers and other artisans in Rochdale, England, who got together in 1844 to collectively purchase food. The Rochdale Pioneers weren’t the first group to form a buying co-op, but according to research done by the Mt. Airy buyers group, they were the first to make their co-op succeed and endure.
When the store first got started, “the store was unheated and so small that there was no space for checkout,” reads a historic account on the store’s website. “You’d go next door to 557 Carpenter to pick up an order pad. You’d go back to 555 to select your groceries, and you’d write every product and price on the order pad. Then you’d return to 557 and pay for the groceries. Finally, you’d go back to 555 to pick up your order.”
Eventually, word got around that the co-op’s food was fresher, cheaper and had more variety. By mid-1973, membership had grown to 500 people, and by the end of that year they had a working board of directors and bylaws.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however.
In 2002, Weavers Way planned to open a prepared-foods takeout and sit-down café and bought 608 and 610 Carpenter Lane as a location. But those plans were crushed, and the co-op nearly went bankrupt when it was discovered that fraudulent bookkeeping practices had masked the store's actual dire financial situation.
The crisis went public when an investigation concluded that the bookkeeper did not take money from the co-op and did not have any nefarious intent, but she did make some abysmal financial decisions.
They reformed their fiscal practices, members paid a premium for food, and staffers took pay cuts. By 2005, the co-op was back on financially firm ground and was even able to purchase 555 Carpenter Lane, the old deli that was its original rented home.
In 2009, members decided to open a second store when the century-old Caruso’s Market in Chestnut Hill became available for sale. The co-op raised almost $700,000 in member loans to fund the project, and Weavers Way Chestnut Hill opened its doors at 8424 Germantown Ave. on May 15, 2010.
They followed that up by opening a third market in Ambler in 2017, and later this year they plan to open a fourth market at 328 W. Chelten Ave. in Germantown – a building that once housed an Acme market.
For more information, visit weaversway.coop. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com