Our Co-op → A Consumer Co-op in the South Berkshires

From the beginning, Berkshire Co-op Market has been community based. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in and around Great Barrington, people formed buying clubs so they could purchase a better selection of food at lower prices. Once a month, club members would meet in someone’s garage or a community center to break down large quantities of food and split the costs. These groups clearly filled a need, and they grew to include over 280 family members.

Although buying clubs gave their members a chance both to act cooperatively and to save on food, fresh produce was limited. And groups didn’t have the money or storage space for leftover items, so they could only order what members were willing to take at the time. People still had to go to local stores to buy what they couldn’t get through the club or what they needed until the next club order arrived.

In the late 1970s, the idea to combine efforts and open a co-op store was born, facilitated by the Southern Berkshire Community Action agency. A core group decided it needed the commitment of 150 families. Organizing efforts began in the spring of 1980.

By the fall, the group had raised nearly $5,000. Some worked at signing up new members and fundraising; others located equipment, prepared the legal papers and planned operations. The Granary building on Rosseter Street in Great Barrington was chosen as the site of the new store because it was affordable and the right size. By opening day in November 1981, membership had reached 160 families.

The Early Years

At first, all members were required to work two hours a month. Paid staff was added at critical times or in jobs where consistency was important, such as the general manager position (held by Menoukha Case for the first seven years). No fresh produce and very few refrigerated or frozen items were available.

In order to survive, the original Co-op members realized they had to offer products not readily available in the area at the time, and they chose natural foods. Members were able to buy organically grown and whole foods, which remains the focus of our Co-op today.

The First Expansion

A decade later, the Co-op was experiencing serious growing pains. The aisles were narrow and shoppers felt cramped. When membership grew by 75% and annual sales topped half a million dollars, the members decided in 1993 to renovate the Rosseter Street location and expand to fill the site’s full 2,200 square feet. The Co-op doubled its floor space and increased product selection by 70%. During the expansion celebration in August 1993, members admired the wider aisles, new lighting and flooring, and the quieter store (cooler and freezer compressors were moved outside).

The Second Expansion (Relocation)

In the winter 2001 newsletter, Beth Skinner, then president of the board, wryly noted, “We could win a retail award for how much inventory is packed into our small space.” And, with that, the debate on the virtues of relocating began. Member surveys indicated great support for expanding store departments, especially produce, bulk items, and the deli. Many wanted fresh organic fish and meats and also a sit-down eating area. A smaller number expressed concerns about losing the intimacy of a small store.

Two years later, an in-town location was selected in a building on Bridge Street that had previously been a private gym and a car dealership. The most remarkable part of the initial project was that, during the two-year process, Co-op members made loan pledges totaling $420,000. Pittsfield Cooperative Bank agreed to be our loan partner, and we accepted a $525,000 loan from them.

On June 4, 2003, construction began. Five months later, at 12 pm, October 27, 2003, we opened our doors to an excited and happy crowd eager to be the first to shop in our beautiful and spacious new store.  The new location included wider aisles, more bulk options, a café, more prepared food and more than twice the product options.

The Present

During our eight years in the Bridge Street store, the Co-op has continued to soar.  We have paid back all those owner loans from the early 2000s and business is literally booming.

Our owners and shoppers have made the store a destination in Great Barrington and highlight of the Southern Berkshires.  Known for our natural food policy, commitment to local agriculture, support of the local economy and dedication to environmental stewardship, we are now a multimillion-dollar business that shows significant growth every year.

And, just like in 2001, Berkshire Co-op Market is literally bursting at the seams.  The ratio of sales to square feet at the Bridge Street store is roughly twice the industry standard.  The storage space cannot keep the shelves effectively stocked, and the system has reached its efficiency capacity in the space it has.

During the November 2010 Annual Meeting, it was announced that the Co-op is once again in expansion mode.  Initial research has commenced on expansion at the Bridge Street location, as well as searching out a new location.  Owner forums, conversations, planning meetings and board discussions are taking place.  The board has set a goal to be in the new location within two years.

The Future

With the planning in process, it is tough to describe the new store in much detail.   What we know is that it will allow us to further support local growers and food producers, increase our ability to educate our community, create more buying power and more efficient systems that will result in lower prices, and become a truly green business beyond the limitations of our current building.

Photos and text courtesy of Berkshire Co-op Market