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Co-op History: From 1976 to Now

“A Good Neighborhood Endeavor” Celebrates Thirty Years
By Kathy Gerhardt

In 1976, Dorothy Hamill won a gold medal in figure skating at the Winter Olympics; the Concorde made its first commercial flight; and the first 4.6 miles of the Washington D.C. subway system opened. Patty Hearst went on trial for armed robbery of a San Francisco bank and in late 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated President Gerald Ford. Also that year, on March 12, 1976, Linden Hills Co-op first opened its doors.

The co-op was the brainchild of long-time Linden Hills resident Carol Vaubel. In the mid-70s, she was the chairperson of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council (LHiNC). “My impetus for doing this was two things: the community aspect of it and the foods—having less processed, less packaged, whole food available at a reasonable price,” said Vaubel recently. After floating the idea and receiving positive feedback, Vaubel set about turning it into a reality. For approximately nine months leading up to March 1976, an enormous volunteer effort went into the opening of the co-op.

The DrewsThe Drews

If Carol is the mother of the co-op, Bruce Drew is “Father Co-op” according to longtime employee, Tree Li. Bruce and Maggie Drew, along with others, spent countless hours getting the co-op up and running, as well as working at the store. The co-op’s archives include extensive notes and meeting minutes that Bruce gave to the co-op several years ago.

The following is from the meeting minutes of February 2, 1976, prior to the co-op’s opening: “Coupons are the main source of money. A log is kept of the recipient or buyer of each numbered coupon….Two weeks ago there was only $600 in the treasury: it looked as if the co-op wouldn’t open. But when people heard that, they apparently became inspired because by the end of the next week we had $2,000 in the bank.”

The other source of revenue was memberships, which cost $5 apiece and lasted for at least a year. The benefits of the $5 membership were spelled out as: “a philosophical commitment to the co-op; have an equal voice in decision making; the privilege to work in the store; ownership of one share of stock.” Each member was required to work “at least four hours per month in not less than two hour blocks in order to be eligible for the 10% discount.” Coordinators, like the Drews, worked four hours at a time.

As they raised funds, Vaubel and Kathleen Paul canvassed the neighborhood, looking for the right location for this community venture. They settled on 4307 Upton Avenue South, in part because of the price, but more so because it was the only thing available. As many long-time members will remember, the location shared space with a recycled children’s clothing store. With a location secured, the volunteers went to work again. “Volunteers built all of the counters and partitions. Volunteers built the bins and re-did the floors. It was all a volunteer thing,” recalled Vaubel.

These founding members also remember passionate discussions about what products to carry. “[We] had a great deal of discussions about whether we should have frozen foods or canned goods,” said Maggie Drew, “and a huge discussion about whether we should have sugar. We didn’t have plastic sacks or anything like that. We were very pure.” Says Vaubel, “We had a big discussion about whether to carry sugar at all, or any kind of sugar or anything packaged. In the beginning, we really didn’t have anything packaged.”

As Vaubel and Paul did their location search, they also let area businesses know what was in the works. In a perfect world, everyone would be in favor of the new co-op. “The only opposition we ran into was a barber who was right next door,” remembered Vaubel. “He was a little bald man who had been there for years. Well, he thought co-ops were a yucky thing and he wasn’t really in favor. But after it opened, he used to come in there every morning and get a little treat. I thought that was a fun ending to that.”

Linden Hills Co-op’s founding volunteers also received invaluable assistance from the All Co-op Assembly, which provided sample bylaws and leads on second-hand equipment like a used veggie cooler. When asked if it looked anything like those of today, Bruce chuckled before adding a firm “no.” The sliding doors were tricky and had a tendency to fall off. There was also a nightly ritual, according to the Drews. “At night, we took everything out of the top of the cooler and put it underneath. Then every morning, we had to get it out and put it on top. We had to do that, because we didn’t believe in using plastic.”

In need of more space, the co-op moved three years later to 4306 Upton Avenue. The bigger space allowed for some changes, according to Maggie. “Before, we had to be really careful because we really didn’t have any space. [Previously] if we only ordered one box of apples, now we could order two or three. [We had] back space to cut our cheese up in or our veggie work. We had more space to work and more room for coolers.”

4306 Upton4306 Upton

Of course, some things stayed very much the same. “It really depended a lot on volunteers [who were] cashiering, cutting cheese, and stocking shelves,” said Li, who this year will celebrate his 25th anniversary with the co-op. “One other difference between now and then: we wanted the cheapest food possible with the smallest profit possible. We didn’t budget to make a profit.”

Today the co-op is in its third location, where membership has more than tripled since 1996 from 1,700 to 5,200. The Drews remember the first time they took in $100 dollars as a momentous occasion; now the co-op is a $7-million-a-year business. As the co-op has evolved, not every decision has been met with approval from these long time members. Even so, they all take great satisfaction in the part they played to see Linden Hills Co-op to its 30th birthday and beyond. “[There is] a lot of pride. No one expected it.” said Bruce. Added Vaubel, “Basically, I recognize that you have to change. I’m proud of it … a lot of other people have picked up the reins and made it happen and that’s good. That’s the way it should be. I still feel it’s a good neighborhood endeavor.”