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Throwback Article | Summer Quarterly 2023

Arcata Coop 1975 and Beyond

by John Lucas, Member #3456

Co-op Community Article

The following article was submitted by a local Co-op Community Member and has not been edited for content. The views expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of North Coast Co-op. If you would like to contribute an article, please email coopnews@northcoast.coop for more information.

I first got involved with the Coop in 1975.  At that time the store was located in the old Seely & Titlow building (now Northtown Books).  It was a small store but a big step up from the Coop’s beginning as a buying club.  There was a limited product line but you could buy brown rice, whole wheat bread, fresh vegetables, canned goods and cheese.  There was no meat or fish.  Whole Earth Natural Foods had a small store on the Arcata Plaza but their prices were high and Arcata really needed a better natural foods store.

My partner at the time, Lynn MacDonald, had started working at the Coop a few months earlier in the Dairy Collective and our friend Van Baldwin had become the Coop’s accountant.  I had been attending Humboldt State but was now looking to get involved in something interesting.  What better place than the Coop?  The fact that the Coop was a cooperative and had an unconventional business model added to the appeal.  
When the Coop had first been incorporated it had modified the Palo Alto Coop’s Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws but now wanted to create its own.  I decided to join the Bylaws Committee.

The Coop had leased the old Safeway building on 13th Street (now Wildberries) in early 1975.  Initially it was used as a bulk foods and back stock warehouse but the plan was to move the store there.  Fred Stapenhorst knew I had a cement mixer and asked me if I could cut the top off a 55 gallon safflower oil drum, fill it with concrete and embed a floor safe in the concrete.  The Coop now had safe.  This was my first project and, as I recall, I was paid with food credits.  We did that a lot in those days.
Mark Derby had started building a walk-in cooler for produce but decided to quit the Coop and go work for Whole Earth Natural Foods as a truck driver.  I took over the construction of the cooler.  About that time I became an official employee of the Coop.  

Back then there were no managers or supervisors, business decisions were all made during the weekly worker meetings for which we closed the store Thursday mornings.  All the workers were expected to spend 2 hours a day as cashiers and unload the truck once a month.  We had a 5 member Board of Directors elected from the general membership (which we preferred calling the Board of Representatives, Directors sounded too authoritarian).

The Coop moved the store into the old Safeway building just using a small part of the sales floor initially.  Sales were steadily increasing and we needed to expand the store and now we could.  I made it my personal goal to help create the infrastructure needed for the Coop to become a full service natural foods grocery store.  Another walk in cooler was built.  I built some back-loading grain bins.  I learned how to do refrigeration work.  We acquired used refrigeration equipment where ever we could.  We didn’t have much money and no credit with the banks, so everything was done on the cheap.

After a Board meeting Fred Stapenhorst and I were talking.  Fred commented that some workers always needed to attend the Board meetings to keep the Board members informed.  I suggested “why don’t we add two workers to the Board?”  So we added that to the Bylaws revisions and the membership approved it at the fall membership meeting.  Kathy O’Leary and I became the first worker members of the Board, elected by the workers and approved by the members, and the Board now had 7 members.

We continued to expand the sales floor over the next 2 years, buying more used equipment,  locally, at auctions, or from used equipment dealers.  Step by step the sales floor got larger and the back stock area smaller.  Sales continued to increase and members continued to join.  The Coop was doing well.

Late in 1977 or early 1978 I remember looking out at the sales floor which now filled the entire space available.  I felt that I had accomplished my goal.  The Arcata Coop was a full size natural foods grocery store.  I decided to resign as an employee and being a worker Board member resigned from the remainder of my second term as a Board member.  But it wasn’t going to be that easy!

The Coop had been negotiating the renewal of the lease on our building when Lynn was told by the buildings owners that they had leased it to someone else.  Our wonderful store was going to become Larry’s Market.  Could the Coop survive?  Of course, I was going to do everything possible to make sure it did.

A number of us met on the Arcata Plaza the next day feeling quite discouraged.  What were we going to do?  The only building in town that could possibly accommodate the store was the old Purity supermarket on I Street which was vacant.  It was a depressing building, a large quonset hut with no windows, no loading dock and not really enough space.  I suggested “what if we knocked out the east wall facing I Street and put in a glass storefront?”  I saw Fred’s face light up at that suggestion and I knew that the store was going to survive… or I hoped so.

The Purity building was owned by Mary Schmidbauer.  I drew up some preliminary plans and somehow the Coop convinced the Schmidbauers to make the improvements we wanted.  It took several months to put in a glass store front, add a loading dock and receiving area, and space for the bakery and offices, that work being performed by Jim Pritchard of Sequoia Construction Specialties, the Schmidbauers preferred contractor.  

I committed to help move the store to the new building working as a contractor for the Coop’s share of the project.  Some new equipment was purchased and installed before the big move but most everything needed to be moved from the current store and reinstalled in just a few days.

We closed the store Saturday evening and the next Thursday, June 22, 1978, we opened in our new location.  Every conveyance imaginable was used to move the equipment, shelving, and products.  Uninstalling, moving and reinstalling all the refrigeration equipment in such a short period of time was a challenge.  It took the efforts of all the workers and many volunteers but we did it all in 5 days.  

The Coop is a much more sophisticated operation now, has a more conventional management structure, a unionized workforce, multiple stores and is now is the Northcoast Cooperative, Inc.  The Coop now owns the Arcata store building.  It has thrived with the support of the community and the dedication of its employees.  1975 to 1978 was a dynamic, transitional and exciting period for the Coop and I am grateful to have been a small part of it.

John Lucas
7 July 2023


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