It isn't your ordinary health food store. Amid clumps of organic bananas, barrels of brown rice and the inevitable tofu, Glut is the oldest surviving food co-op in the Washington area.
Food is cheap, workers are managers and there's no boss.
Remember Stone Soup, Fields of Plenty, Rainbow Bridge, all food co-ops from the hippie era? They vanished as their clientele grew up, cut their hair, got straight jobs and maybe even voted Republican. Not Glut -- Glut lives.
Housed in a working class section of Mount Rainier in Prince George's County just down the block from the Whosoever Will Church of God, the co-op sells a vast range of healthy food on a nonprofit basis, from a cluttered, noisy storefront redolent of the '60s.
Glut was formed in 1969 as a buying club for several group houses in the District. Two conscientious objectors from the Vietnam War made the fledgling co-op their alternative service project, nurturing it within the city's growing counterculture.
The co-op shifted among several churches in Northwest Washington, gaining more customers and selling on an orders-only basis, until members were held up at knifepoint, and it then retreated to Grace Church in Georgetown.
Those early days were chaotic. As a free-form buying club, Glut distributed cottage cheese in soggy little packets of Saran Wrap and weighed out hamburger meat on a bathroom scale.
One newsletter tells of a "grizzly disaster" when the co-op bought frozen ground beef in 10-pound bags, then tried to soften them in hot water in a church sink, with grease seeping through the packaging. Members ended up hacking off "great disgusting lumps of frozen beef with a hatchet," the newsletter reported.
But like the counterculture, Glut and its members have, in their own way, matured. They no longer sell meat, and now they even advertise.
In 1973, surviving Gluttens, as they are sometimes called, bought the storefront in Mount Rainier, just over the District line, and opened up on a cash-and-carry basis. There were a few bad years, when the co-op barely broke even. But today it thrives.
The store is stocked from floor to ceiling with whole wheat breads, spices and herbs in big, plastic bottles, a huge case of pita loaves, bins of bulk grain, beans and nuts, big white plastic cans of rolled oats and raw sunflower seeds, organic and regular fruits and vegetables, all in scruffy splendor -- and most at prices cheaper than in commercial markets, the Gluttens proudly say.
Working collective members get $9 an hour, a sum that allows some to live frugally in group homes, while others work outside to supplement their income. There's a carpenter, an artist, a welder and several musicians in the collective.
Shannon McSurely, 29, first volunteered at Glut when she was 18. She met her husband there, and now the two share one Glut job. They also grow herb plants for the co-op, and dream of owning an organic farm. "I really think Glut's a romantic place," she said.
McSurely and her husband, Arnold Bradshaw,share a group house with Chris Doyle, at 43 one of the oldest members of the co-op. Doyle, a carpenter, said Glut has survived because of conservative economics, continuity of staff and loyalty of its clientele.
"We have people who were hippies in college, now 40 years old with kids, who still shop here," he said.
But the staff, like the customers, is also eclectic in race and background. "We have to be, because of where we are. There's a very diverse Hispanic, black and blue-collar communmity here," said member Larry Hofmeister, who lives nearby and plays piano for spare dollars.
Member Judy Davis, who lives in the District near Takoma Park, is in charge of ordering crackers, chips and other pre-packaged stuff, what she laughingly calls "the good junk food."
Davis volunteered after she had her first son and became interested in healthy food. Now she has six children ("I'm the woman who has babies every year") and said Glut is like a family.
Givon Thompson rides his bike from Southeast, wearing combat pants and a blue backpack, to his part-time job at Glut. Thompson, a stained-glass artist, likes the flexible hours and the people he meets. "Being a vegetarian, I'm in my element," he said.
Loyal customers come from as far away as the Eastern Shore or Pennsylvania, making special trips to stock up on bulk foods. Hofmeister said he recently got a call from New York, asking what Glut's hours are, and Thompson noted that one collective member honeymooning in Africa found Africans familiar with Glut.
Customers are asked to bring old shopping bags for dry food and jars for bulk items such as honey. They help bag and weigh their own food. Each collective member is in charge of ordering, pricing and inventory for one section of the store, like produce, juices or spices.
Hassan Bilal of the District said he shops for raw grains, vegetables, honey and herbs at Glut because they don't have chemical preservatives. "There's enough chemicals just breathing the air," he said.
His friend, Jacquie Anderson, skeptically inspected a bag of Barbara's Yogurt and Green Onion Potato Chips, then put it back on the shelf. "It's also cheaper," she said.
There are other co-ops alive and well in the Washington area -- in Bethesda, Takoma Park-Silver Spring and Arlington -- but none is as old as Glut, or, its members say, as cheap, as egalitarian, or as racially diverse.
The Glut collectives decide everything by consensus, meeting once a week to make policy decisions. "There's no manager to make 'em, so we make 'em ourselves," Hofmeister says.
Excess profits go back into the store, or into a range of charities -- AIDS research, peace projects, the African National Congress -- that approach Glut for contributions.
When street people or other poor people come in, said Doyle, as if the answer was completely obvious, "we give 'em food." Unsold produce goes to shelters for the homeless.
The store's philosophy is "food for people, not for profit," several members said. Some cheerfully boast another slogan: "Still funky, still cheap."
Business has expanded by as much as 40 percent in recent years because of the boom in natural products, scares about Alar and Chilean grapes, and hype about oat bran and other health foods, co-op workers say.
There's some talk of expanding the store, just to alleviate the clutter. McSurely said the Prince George's Health Department recently demanded that Glut raise all food off the floor, which will require carpenter Doyle to build new racks.
But he and others expect Glut to endure pretty much as it is now. "We've been in the same spot for so long, we have roots in the neighborhood," Doyle said. "I'd like to see it stay there."
In Glut's halcyon days, members set up a trucking co-op and organic mill, and schemed to buy a farm. "There was a counterculture then, and we had a great vision for what it was to be," Doyle said.
He ponders Glut today, with its bustling store, collective decision-making, and not-for-profit philosophy. Is the counterculture still alive? he is asked. "I guess so," Doyle said.