by Lynn Levine
Originally published in the BFC's 2012 Annual Report, in honor of the International Year of the Co-op.
I awoke at exactly 4:44 A.M. That time is an important one for us because our daughter, Brook, was born 4:44 in the afternoon, almost 30 years ago. I tried to go back to sleep, and not wake Cliff (my husband), so I reached for my iPod, put on the headphones to listen to my music (often a way to lull myself back to sleep) and chose music by local musicians Mike Mrowicki and Amelia Struthers on their album “About the Heart.” When the title song began, I started bawling. I mean, I really cried. Cliff turned over to check if all was okay and, when he heard what I was crying about, he stroked my back. He quickly fell to sleep, but I started composing, in my head, the article that Sabine Rhyne, the Co-op’s community relations director, had months ago asked us to write. She had called and asked, “Can you tell us about the beginning days of the Co-op?” Though we immediately said “Yes,” neither of us had been able to put our fingers on the computer’s keys. Just the day before, Brook was visiting and the three of us had taken an emotional and wondrous tour of the soon-to-be-open new Co-op. We were sharing dinner at her all-time favorite restaurant, Shin La, and Cliff and I were gushing with stories about the roots of the BFC. After a long while, she leaned forward and said, “You must tell this story.” What parent could refuse?
To get to the point, the reason I was crying that morning was that I felt the wonderment of my life. I just couldn’t believe I had anything to do with the beginnings of the Co-op. But I had, and so had Cliff. In 1975, the two of us had signed the Articles of Association in the law office of Bill Dorsch. We did so as a long-lasting couple (or so we thought, having been together for over six months at that time.) So, our anniversary and the Co-op’s are inexorably mixed. I have only a faint memory of what turned out to be a historic moment, but here is what I do remember (refreshed by a few phone calls).
The vision for the Co-op came from a group of volunteers, sitting in what was then “Hotline for Help.” It was the time of the VISTA program, sort of a domestic Peace Corps. To find out more, I called Tom Huenink (now living out of state) and Judy Carpenter (now a reading specialist in Craftsbury, VT). They filled me in: Youth Services wanted to start a drop-in center for teens, something like the Boys and Girls Club. So, Tom, Judy, and Bobbie Gerrard (formerly director of Hotline, who now lives in California with a menagerie of rescued animals) wrote the grant. The VISTA official said they didn’t want to fund just a single position but, instead, several, so as to have a greater impact in the town. So “The Coalition” was formed. They received funding for several positions, including the Green Mountain Health Center, Youth Services, Hotline, and the Women’s Crisis Center (now called the Women’s Freedom Center), and what would become the Brattleboro Food Co-op. The person who was hired to spark the Co-op was Peter Stolley (who became a violin maker, among other vocations).
The Co-op sold food for the first time on February 20, 1975, in the garage of the Green Mountain Health Center on High Street. As a pre-order co-op, each week you would mark on a form the items you wanted, and the next week you picked up your food. Each group could choose its own name. One unique name Cliff can remember is “Society of Harmonious Fist.” It was not long before we moved to the basement of the Health Center. With its rickety stairs, dirt floor, and the stone foundation (we whitewashed it to spruce it up), this became a store we could shop in once or twice a week. Notice I use the word “WE” because, right from the beginning, we knew it was all about all of us working together.
What I remember most about shopping in the Co-op was how excited we all were to have a place we could shop for health food (there was The Good Life, the natural foods store in town, but we OWNED this one!) and how the Co-op immediately created a sense of community. This is not just my memory, but the collective memory of all the “old timers.”
There were two staff positions open– a coordinator and a part-time bookkeeper. The former paid $40 a week– two people wanted the position so they shared it. That was Lee Crowley (who long ago passed away) and Jack Fredericks (still in town). The bookkeeper’s position paid $5 a week for one day. Cliff volunteered for that position. He remained in that position for 23 years, but I’m jumping ahead of myself. But, I do credit him, and so do many of the old timers, for helping to maintain the Co-op’s stability over the years. He was never our visionary, but he was passionate about the Co-op and made sure that we could always pay our bills and invest in our future.
Behind the scenes, there were long Co-op meetings held regularly in the great natural foods restaurant, The Common Ground, which was the center of many community happenings (I still have their recipe for cashew burgers on a torn sheet of purple paper). At these meetings all decisions were made by consensus. As you can imagine, sometimes we could be held hostage by one dissenting attendee (I’m presently not a big proponent of large groups working by consensus.) It was not long after that, that Connie Woodberry and I began training people to lead the meetings, and to make them more productive. It was a relief! Eventually an elected board was created, and Cliff became a member. He served on the board so long that, eventually, the Co-op implemented term limits.
When the Co-op outgrew the High Street location, we moved to the old Maple Farms Dairy building on Putney Road (near the Marina). No longer did we have a dirt floor, and we purchased our first, used walk-in cooler. Not so long after, we were again bursting at the seams. Then, onto Flat Street for over a decade, where we had our first $1 million sales year. In 1988, we moved to Main Street and then, eventually, purchased the plaza. Each time we moved, we thought “We have arrived!” But, with Carl Hirth (still living in Brattleboro) and Alex Gyori (still our incredible Co-op manager after 30 years) the dreaming never ended, and so here we are at another new beginning. You might be tempted to say that, for sure, “We really have arrived,” but I know that, as a Co-op, the dreaming never ends (Okay, that’s a really cliché ending, but true).
So, by now I had listened to the CD several times and got to the last song, “Sweet Dreams and Goodnight.” But I couldn’t go to sleep anymore – it was 8 A.M. and I knew I had my work cut out for me, revising this draft, having Cliff edit it, and then having Sabine edit this 1,220-word article, that was supposed to be just 200- 400 words long.
Lynn Levine has just published yet another wonderful book, this one for children about spotted salamanders' lives, called Is it Time Yet?, illustrated by Dirk Steinhoefel, coming soon to the BFC!