Co-op on the march: a little insurrection of good taste

A picture of smiling people from the Fiddleheads Food Co-op website.

I am the loose tea buyer at my local food coop. Oh, stop—it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.

All I do is maintain an inventory of about 30 kinds of teas—black, green, herbal and medicinal. I am learning as I go, since coffee (black, hot and copious) is my beverage of choice. The teas come in pound bags and I transfer them into attractive jars, refilling the stock as needed and keeping the area tidy. The whole job takes 10 to 15 hours a month, and I earn a 15 percent discount on my groceries. When I took over teas, I also absorbed most of the “medicinal herbs” that were sprinkled throughout the nearby loose spices area. So now my bailiwick includes everything that you mix with hot water before consuming (except the already-lamented coffee). Every time I walk into the store, I take a few minutes to tidy up my area and make sure the teas are still in alphabetical order.

The coop is called Fiddleheads, and it is in downtown New London (the Whaling City), Connecticut. It will celebrate its fourth birthday next month. I remember first entering the store three years ago or so when I was in town visiting friends. From my jaded perch as a member—though almost constantly in a state of suspension—of Brooklyn’s bursting-at-the-gills Park Slope Food Coop, it seemed like a Soviet-era grocery store, with one of each item on the shelves and plenty of room to grow. And, how it has grown.

There are more than a thousand member-owners at this point, and more are joining all the time. The shelves are full of good stuff and the mostly-volunteer workforce has a hard time staying on top of stocking—especially on the weekend. We just hired another staff person, bringing our paid work force up to four. Anyone can shop at Fiddleheads, and members get a 2 percent discount. By working a number of hours each month, members can earn larger discounts and buyers (like myself) get 15 percent off in exchange for their vast (and, okay, I admit it: glamorous) responsibilities.

In September, a natural food store in a neighboring town closed after 35 years, and Fiddleheads bought a lot of their fixtures and some of their inventory, hugely expanding our capacity without busting the bank. I was impressed by how quickly the new products and shelving and refrigerators were completely assimilated into the store. Just a week or so after being installed, it seemed like we always had homeopathic remedies and massive freezer capacity.

To me, the operative word in Fiddleheads Food Co-op is the one that gets shortened and forgotten: coop, as in cooperative. As a grocery store, it only works because people want to be there, want to be working together and want to be part of an organism bigger than themselves. And it is more than just a grocery store; it is a small but vital and vibrant example of how vision, cooperation and people-centric values can thrive in an economic system that all too often values only profit.  I don’t just buy vegetables and eggs and delicious chocolate covered peanut butter malt balls there, I resist mega-mart strip-mall, big-box, union-busting, soul-sucking, lowest common denominatorism and support its human-sized, imperfect and wonderful alternative.

Wednesdays is the big delivery day and a dedicated group of people show up every Wednesday at about 11 a.m. to price and stock, rotate the old stock and tidy up the shelves. Some folks are there until 4 p.m. finishing the job, and the orders just keep getting bigger. They aren’t there because opening cardboard boxes is fun (although wielding a pricing gun adds a little thrill, for sure) but because they see immediate results from their labor, are doing it with friends, and are helping to make healthy, affordable food available in their community.

When I first moved to New London a year and a half ago, I tried to start a trend—I did come from New York, after all—by calling it “Fiddlesticks. I had to bite my tongue hard and often to keep from saying “Back at the Park Slope Food Coop…” all the time.  But now I am over the moon, a real coop partisan. The two places are so different, and while I miss the extraordinary selection of cheeses in Park Slope and the olives in plastic baggies, I do not miss the Park Slope Food Coop experience.

The biggest difference is security. Walking into PSFC is a challenge, even for members in good standing. I hear that the shenanigans that I used to pull to be able to shop—as I was out of their good graces for missing shifts most of the 10 years I belonged—are no longer even possible with the new system. Everything at PSFC is meant to keep non-members out and to prevent theft. You have to run the gauntlet to get into (and out of) the coop. At Fiddleheads, non-members can shop and New London is a small enough town that the five-finger discount is a manageable problem.

The big thing I am still getting used to is the “I just need to pick up a few things for dinner” phenomenon. You can go into Fiddleheads anytime and shop for a snack, a meal or a week. I never dropped into the PSFC (or, as I used to call it, THE Coop) for a few items. There was no point in going through the hassle of schlepping there unless I was going to drop $100 (cash only for most of the time I was a member) and need a car service to get home.

I never really got to know anyone at THE Coop except for the early morning produce staff. My theory for managing my once-every-four-weeks, two-hour-and-forty-five-minute shift was to do it as early in the morning as possible—that way, nothing ever conflicted with it… except my desire to sleep. And you don’t get to know anyone at 6 o’clock in the morning. That is just a fact. I recently ran into a friend and was introduced to her companion. “How do you all know each other?” the woman asked. “The Coop,” we both responded. And we had, just seeing each other at the coop and starting to say hi. I could go on and on the way you might expect from a small town newbie (the people are so friendly, the houses are so cheap, there is always parking, the same man works at the post office every day!).

Loose tea is small fish at the Fiddleheads Coop. I order a few hundred dollars worth of tea and herbs every month or two while it moves out of the store. I am only responsible for a micro-percentage of the store’s overall financial success. But I am really proud to be part of the only grocery store in downtown New Londo,n and one that is friendly, open and committed to good food, good health, good prices and justice.

When we celebrate four years of Fiddleheads the first weekend in February, we are saying more than “Happy Birthday, grocery store.” We’re saying “thanks for all the hard work and vision and delicious food, thanks for creating community and feeding friendships.” Happy Birthday, Fiddleheads!

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