The Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley, which combined penny-pinching grocery retailing with rad-lib politics to become the largest food cooperative in the 50 states, may not survive the year.
At its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the 40-year-old Co-op's political conscience was better advertised than its prices for chicken and beans. It boycotted Gallo wine, observed Vietnam Moratorium Day, sold only union lettuce, and labeled and linked Dow Chemical products to napalm.
Co-op developed into a chain of 13 food markets, a hardware store, service station, pharmacies, coffee bars, a bakery and liquor stores doing $72 million worth of business annually.
Spread across four Bay Area counties, Co-op, which derives its strength from its Berkeley base, is owned and run by its 92,000 members-customers who pay $5 to join.
Run democratically, and some say as a result, inefficiently, the Co-op, in its good years, plows back a portion of its net savings (profits) to its members in annual dividends. The rest is put back into the business.
But for two-and-half years now, Co-op has been in an economic slide. Last year for the first time in ten, Co-op's volume declined slightly although its membership continued to rise.
In 1974, Co-op had a net savings of $578,600. In 1975, it saved $308,000. But in 1976 the slump began, and the co-op lost $121,900. Last year the losses reached $359,600. In the last quarter, seven of its 13 markets lost money:
"I would say," said general manager Leonard Levitt, if changes are not made, "that in about six months there would be no Co-ops."
The board of directors is selling off the gas station, auto repair garage and garden shop - all financial losers. Yesterday a vote was scheduled on the closing of six Kiddie Korrals, child-care facilities for shoppers.
Ironically, Co-op's Shattuck Avenue store in Berkeley, an amalgam of longhairs, academics and mellow party politics, does the largest sales-per-square-foot of any store on the West Coast, Levitt said.
When Co-op members, an angry articulate lot, talk about what went wrong, they talk about politics.
Today, for the first time in a decade, there is not one radical on the board of directors. The left-wing politics of the 1960s and the early 1970s which drew some customers and repelled others, has been swept aside.
Coors is the largest selling beer at the Co-op, despite efforts of many members to start a chain-wide boycott of the non-union beer. And over vocal protests, Florida frozen orange juice continued to be sold last year while Anita Bryant railed against Bay Area gays.
Only an abbreviated consumer politics continued to be advocated at Co-op.
Shoppers turn to Co-op not simply for its varied products, delicacies and ethnic foods, nor for its prices, which are no lower than the competing markets, but for its ethics, politics and what it represents.
"It's a lifestyle with us." says board member Bonnie Fish, who tried the PTA and "couldn't handle it." The co-op, she adds, "is my church."
"I saw it as an economic alternative, a showcase of consumer-member ownership and control," explained Linda Aqulian, a one-time progressive board member. When she sat on the board, the Co-op, she says "was not merely a business, it could also be responsive to social forces."
"I read all the material," says Levitt who came to the Co-op less than a year ago from a career with Food Fair. Safeway and Penn Fruit, "and it just sounded so beautiful to have everyone working together to achieve an objective of goods and services at low prices. But it doesn't work that way.
He blamed the collapse of the utopian market idea on "the Berkeley syndrome," or "people who derive pleasure from confrontation."
In fact, 80 per cent of Co-op's members live outside Berkeley, although 40 per cent of its patronage is in Berkeley.
The two stores that are the most successful are both in Berkeley and are considered the most radical.
Each store "council" determines part of that store's policy. The Shattuck Avenue Co-op for example, while forced to put Coors on its shelves, posts signs recommending that its members not buy the beer.
Members of the conservative-to-moderate board of directors blame Co-op's losses in large part on years of political activism. They say that politicism was conducted at the expense of Co-op's own physical needs and repelled some would-be shoppers.
Other board members say shoppers grew weary of closing for a People's Park Protest and of the stores running out of lettuce on weekends because all the union lettuce had been sold.
The present management wants the public to think of Co-op as a non-political institution with a consumer-oriented conscience.
In part, Levitt says, the fault is not in the Co-ops but in the national trend. The supermarket industry in general, regarded as a low-margin business, is suffering.
Twenty-five of the 31 largest supermarkets, Levitt said, reported reduced earnings last quarter. The boom of the 1960s has soured into the hard times of the 1970s. Inflation and the fast-food industry have cut profits nationally. The cuts, says Levitt, run deeper for the smaller chains.
The liberal-to-radical contingent, now on the outside looking in, blames Co-op's problems on its lack of politics.
"They say that every time you take a stand on a political issue you're alienating someone, therefore it's bad for business," says past board president Larry Duga.
Disallusioned by its diluted politics, Duga thinks "the board and general manager are trundling down the wrong road. They are saying we want to be a little Safeway. That's a game I don't think we can win."
Still, the Co-op is a long distance from being mistaken for its competition. Its ambiance aside, Co-op was first in the nation to ban aerosol sprays with fluorocarbons because of the damage they do to the earth's ozone layer.
Many popular children's cereals carrying more candy than nutrition, aren ot stocked by Co-op. Those that are, not placed on high shelves, out of the reached of small children.