Barrels of Japanese aduki beans, chickpeas, soybeans, and pinto beans line the shelves of Arlington's The Uncommon Market, described by members as Northern Virginia's last food co-op.
Food co-ops, which flourished in the '60s when members paid a yearly fee and chipped in to work as volunteers to sell fresh foods -- seem to have gone the way of sandals and long hair. And it looks as though The Uncommon Market may be about to go that way, as well.
Members of the co-op at 1035 S. Edgewood, just a block from Columbia Pike, will meet next week to decide whether to sell or dissolve the 10-year-old co-op, which has steadily been losing money this past year, store manager Meredith Dyer said yesterday.
"We've been pretty much struggling the whole time," Dyer said. "Until two years ago, we had a lot of member cooperation, but interest has dwindled."
Dyer said that over the past few years, volunteers at the co-op, which has a yearly membership fee of $30, have dwindled from 125 to 25. "In the 1960s, people who were interested in co-ops were in their twenties. Now they are in their forties and have families. It's a different pace today. People work a whole lot harder in their jobs and don't have time for the co-op. I guess we're just in the wrong place at the wrong time," she added.
Dyer, who has been a member for seven years and store manager for five years, said she would be interested in buying the co-op if members vote to sell.
"People have told me that they will miss it," Dyer said. The store specializes in fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, and teas. The nearest storefront co-ops, Dyer said, are in Maryland. Although Washington has two food co-ops, they are not stores.
The Arlington co-op is open to anyone, but only members receive a discount. There are currently two full-time paid staff members, and the store relies on volunteer help, Dyer said. Dyer believes that the lenient member discount system contributed to the financial loss.
Arlington resident Art Danforth, who has written a book on co-ops, said he believes there are other problems. "I think the problem primarily started with too small a store and too little capital," said Danforth, who has been advising the co-op. "There is also some management failure."
He added that a successful co-op requires work time from members or paid staff. "I think the Arlington co-op got caught in the middle of those two points," said Danforth. "It's very rare for a co-op to continue for years. Most of the food co-ops that have made it have moved beyond reliance on work requirements."
According to Danforth, in the past five years there has been a "very substantial wave of failures" nationally among co-ops. But he estimates that there are still about 800 consumer-goods co-ops in the United States.
The Arlington co-op, Danforth said, could only be saved by an infusion of new capital and a group of people willing to work. "It would be wonderful if they could find some way to keep it going," he added. "But it's probably fairly difficult to do at this point."