Members of Arlington's food co-op, facing serious financial problems, voted last week not to close or sell their operation, pledging to make a final, all-out effort to save the store.
Last Tuesday members of the Arlington Cooperative Organization failed to reach a two-thirds majority required by the group to dissolve the 10-year-old co-op, The Uncommon Market, located at 1035 S. Edgewood St. After the vote, members elected a new board of directors, which vowed to begin a massive drive to attract new members and adopt new money-saving measures.
On Friday the new board, in a money-saving move, dismissed the co-op's manager Meredith Dyer, who has served in the position for the past 5 1/2 years. Chip White, one of the new board members, described Dyer as a tireless worker but added, "Meredith was very expensive. In our present financial situation we just had to cut." Board members also agreed to try to sign up 300 new co-op members by Christmas, cut back on business hours, aggressively recruit volunteer workers, pay the $6,000 the store owes distributors and do more advertising.
"We need to do more paid advertising," said founding member John Reeder, who sits on the new board. "A lot of people don't know the co-op exists."
A block off Columbia Pike, tucked between a ski rental shop and a Vietnamese deli, The Uncommon Market is hardly conspicuous.
J. J. Wind, who has belonged to the co-op since 1978, said the co-op moved to its current location from 2400 Columbia Pike in 1980.
"One of the things that has hurt us was that the old location was very visible from the road," he said.
Reeder said the Arlington Cooperative Organization was formed in 1975 when several local food buying clubs decided to merge. In early 1976, the group opened a store-front operation on Columbia Pike. At first, the co-op relied entirely on volunteer labor and was open only to members, he said. At the end of 1976, the store became open to all shoppers and the board hired its first store manager.
The co-op is the last storefront co-op in Northern Virginia, according to its members. It specializes in fruits, vegetables, spices, cheese, fresh breads, nuts and teas. Inside the small, bright store, the shelves are lined with bottles of tamari (a soy sauce without preservatives), jars of sunflower butter and large plastic bins of dried apricots. Near the tomatoes stand huge metal cannisters of orange blossom, clover and wildflower honey.
During its 10-year existence, the co-op has had about 1,700 members, according to White. He estimates the store currently has about 300 shoppers, roughly half of them members.
Becoming a lifetime member costs $30. Members automatically receive a 5 percent discount on food and those who volunteer their time to help run the co-op receive a 15 percent discount.
"New memberships are the lifeblood of a co-op," said Wind. He added that up until about two years ago, the co-op averaged roughly 200 new memberships a year. Over the last two years, Wind said, the co-op has received only about 20 new members.
Wind, along with some other co-op members, blame the low number of new members partly on the recent management's less-than-aggressive recruiting policy.
White said that the new board is considering returning to an early co-op policy of appointing a volunteer coordinator, who would call members on the phone and ask them to work. extra time a larger
But Dyer, who became interested this summer in buying the store herself, is skeptical about the plan to recruit enough members and volunteers to keep the store running.
"People just aren't joining at the same rate they used to," she said, and added that the number of working volunteers has fallen from about 200 to 25 in the last couple of years. "I felt like I was a competent person trying my best to make the store go. After a while, it became evident to me it would not work."
Dyer described the co-op as "a store that continually barely creeps by" and one that has always been in debt. "Each year we've had an emergency and applied another Band-Aid," she said.
Despite the obstacles that might lie ahead, new board members say they hope to generate enough interest in the store to make it work.
"I'm optimistic. I think the co-op with proper management can break even," Reeder said. "There's a reservoir of people really interested in it."
White, who is also optimistic, said the board will evaluate the situation in January. "If our position is better than it is now and we're not losing money, we're not going to close."