by Mary Bene
When I moved to Brattleboro three years ago, I was unfamiliar with the area, and I really didn’t know anyone. But I devoted some detective time to exploring downtown, talking to people on the street (uniformly friendly, by the way), and trying to figure out what makes the town tick,
in addition to a focusing on healthcare services, among other industries.
Eventually, it became clear that the Brattleboro Food Co-op was the hub of the active community’s activity. Hang around in the café area long enough and you may get recruited to join an archery group, consider buying a log home in West Brattleboro, or listen to a splendid, seemingly ad hoc performance of the Bach concertos during lunchtime on a Friday.
But what I also noticed was the passion of the patronage. Shoppers are committed to the Co-op, whether for our fresh and fragrant flowers and healthy produce, our amazing selection of seemingly home-churned ice creams or a deli area that delivers everything from custom-made sandwiches to a fresh salad bar. Everyone is fine with waiting, although lines are negligible, and appreciative of the simplest kindnesses – and there are many – demonstrated by counter staff.
Looking back decades, the mom n’ pop grocery store was the touch point for neighborhood communities from the east coast to the west, which is what I remember growing up in Boston. Then came the suburban supermarkets in the ‘50s and ‘60s and now today’s grocery superstores. It’s all become awfully impersonal.
Recently The New York Times ran a front-page feature, “The Freshest Ideas Are in Small Grocery Stores.” The article details at length the successes smaller, intensely community-focused groceries are having by taking a range of innovative approaches to understanding and serving the needs and lifestyles of their customers. Indeed, these now include “food experiences,” like seminars and on-demand meals; the article also flagged a trend toward shopping several times a week to collect fresh ingredients for each meal.
During any given week, you can choose to flex yourself during a noontime yoga class, learn hands-on about making Mexican tortillas and show up Saturday with your children. They get story hour, while you discover creative new ways to make healthy school lunches.
To me, one of the coolest aspects of our Co-op is ownership. For a few dollars a month, you can become a full-fledged Shareholder of the Co-op community. This entitles you to all the benefits that make shopping at the Co-op for your food needs worthwhile, and also encourages participation in the Co-op experience. Volunteering only a couple of hours a month nets you an additional discount and also brings you into the orbit of your fellow shoppers. I got to know so many familiar faces during my first year of volunteering.
And the best thing about the Co-op community, in my opinion, is the opportunity it offers for everyone to have a voice, through the annual meeting but also, importantly, through Board membership. Any shareholder – ANY SHAREHOLDER– can run for the Board of Directors, regardless of background – it’s in the best interest of the Co-op for our Board to be diverse, so we can reflect the make-up of our community. The Co-op was built to serve the needs of everyone in our Brattleboro community, and that can only happen when everyone is well-represented. In fact, the next Board elections are this fall. Throw your hat in the ring!