An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Power to the People – Whomever They Are…

In the late ‘60s, a couple living in a neighborhood near the University of Minnesota known as the West Bank , discovered the economic advantages of buying grains and other staples in bulk. A 30-pound sack of oats could be purchased from restaurant supply houses for a fraction of the per-ounce price charged for packaged oats off the supermarket shelf. Shaklee along with other pyramid distributors was willing to sell soaps and other personal hygiene products in bulk, affording enormous savings.

They began to canvas their friends and neighbors, asking if they would like to split some bulk foods, and thus was born the first “food conspiracy” in Minneapolis . Within a short time, their back porch had gotten seriously overcrowded with sacks of this and boxes of that and tubs of something else, and people they never had met came calling at all hours of the day and night because a friend of a friend had told them about the incredible bargains to be had. Feeling put upon and wanting their lives back, they sought neutral ground for their non-profit enterprise: somewhere where they could control the hours of business.

They found space in a nearby store front called “Freedom House”. Run by lifelong entrepreneur, pacifist and human rights worker Marvin Davidov, Freedom House was one of many outlets that had been established across the country to sell the products of black worker co-ops in the deep south. Marv had been one of the first “freedom riders” into Mississippi . His experiences there, including arrest and beatings by the authorities, had radicalized him from a free-lance artists' agent to a tireless worker against war and racial oppression. Marv later became the gray eminence behind the Honeywell Project, the first and the longest-lived of the groups in opposition to the use of “cluster bombs”, which Honeywell made throughout the war in Vietnam .

As the word spread, and the volume of business grew, it became clear that there was enough demand for bulk foods and personal hygiene products to justify opening a separate storefront, and so Minneapolis ' first co-op store, North Country Foods, came on line in the early ‘70s.

Originally housing a neighborhood superette of about 1,500 square feet that the chain stores had forced out of business, the building still had some of the original fixtures – not necessarily an advantage. With more space available, entrepreneurs all over the five-state area began to show up with goodies to sell, and now there were barrels of honey, organic vegetables, tofu, and other “home-made” goodies.

For the organizers and workers in the store – it was virtually all done by volunteer labor – co-op, the concept, was as important as the food. Healthy food supplied through common effort, absent the profit motive, with decisions being made by the shoppers (members), became a strategy, as well as a tactic, in the struggle toward the goal of a more egalitarian and benevolent world.

As the store began to be discovered by customers who lived far away from the core community, and began to stay open for more hours each day, more workers were needed to handle the flow.

The larger work force had a more diverse set of attitudes than did the original tight-knit group of friends. All decisions were made in weekly meetings which sometimes went on for six hours or more, in which were debated such topics as whether the store should sell bananas, which were distributed by large corporations such as United Brands, known for their oppression of plantation workers in Central America; and whether balancing the cash register drawer between shifts – implying distrust of workers - constituted corporatist oppression.

While these debates were going on, the number of shoppers – and the distance they traveled to shop at North Country – kept on growing. It soon became clear that the store was the tail wagging the dog of co-op politics. An idea whose time had definitely arrived, it was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of business. What to do?

A small town North Dakota lay Congregationalist preacher and ex-junior high teacher named Dean Zimmermann became the voice for expansion – not to a larger store, but rather for outreach to other neighborhoods, to encourage them to start their own store, thus relieving some of the traffic on North Country Foods. Soon, a small cadre of organizers began calling meetings all over town, and in many small towns all over Minnesota , the Dakotas, and Iowa , for the purpose of starting a co-op. Some of these groups would become “conspiracies”, buying food in bulk to order, and distributing it in members' houses; and a few would develop full-fledged supermarkets. Most neighborhoods chose the middle of the road: a store that looked a lot like the original North Country store.

Meanwhile, other storefronts were opened, using the co-op model: a vegetarian restaurant, a tea-and-spice supply house, a couple of bakeries, a cheese supply collective, a hardware store, a book store, a “free clinic”, a radio station, and an underground newspaper, to name a few.

By then, almost all the original organizers had left the scene, disgusted and frustrated by what they saw as a dilution of their “pure” idea of co-op (workers had begun to demand subsistence wages, and some collectives had appointed managers, for instance). Most had gone to other cities to work, and some had retired to farms in nearby Wisconsin .

The next step seemed obvious to Dean: start a central warehouse, to supply all these burgeoning businesses.

Over a period of several months, with a lot of arm twisting, and promises, a building was rented, supplies purchased, and a staff assembled. By this time, I had worked briefly in North Country , and was splitting my time between the restaurant and the warehouse, where one of the staff members was Erik Utne, soon to be of Utne Reader fame.

As the warehouse outgrew its' space, Dean had what would prove to be an historical idea: buy our own building. The co-op community, always living marginally at best, had never had to deal with a purchase of this magnitude. Many argued that ownership was “buying into the system”, and others expressed fears that the Warehouse would become too big for its' brief, and would have too much influence over its' constituency. History, however, was clearly on the side of centralization of supply, and The People's Warehouse moved to its' spiffy new location, along with a few of the smaller supply collectives.

With dozens of food conspiracies, storefront co-ops and smaller regional warehouses to supply, the Warehouse grew into an economic powerhouse, run from day to day by its' workers, and overseen rather loosely by a quarterly assembly of delegates chosen by each of its' constituents. Things were humming right along. Until some of the founders of North Country came back, found the system to be entirely too bourgeois, white, and intellectual. “Tofu”? said one. “What about cheap frozen pizza? That's what real working people eat!”

This development looked like trouble to me, and so it proved to be…

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and