NEWS

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February 3, 2009

One year later, former workers reflect on Co-op’s close

Former Co-op employees gathered at Lil’s Kocktail Lounge Saturday to reconnect and celebrate their time together a year and change after the East 55th Street Co-pp Market closed.

“We’re real good friends, like family, here,” said Edith Wells, a 29-year Co-op employee who helped organize what they hope will become an annual reunion.

But the Co-op’s closing after 75 years left more than just a sense of community. For its board members, a mess of unfinished business and unrealized ideals remains.

The East 55th Street store was one of three grocery stores owned by the Hyde Park Cooperative Society. It closed in 2007, following the 2006 closure of the East 47th Street store, which drained millions of dollars from the cooperative both during operation from 2000­ to 2006 and after the store was shuttered.

Now all that’s left is the Cooperative Society, which filed for bankruptcy last spring, according to board president Joan Staples. Staples still spends 10 hours a week pushing through an “amazing amount of contracts to end, people to pay, W-2 forms to get out, threats of suits to deal with,” according to Jay Mulberry, a former employee. Staples said she is trying to find an attorney to formally dissolve the Hyde Park Cooperative Society.

Staples, a retired teacher, isn’t paid for her Co-op work and said she has no formal management or finance training. She was elected board president before 61 percent of the store’s membership voted that it close, but began her three-year term in June.

Jim Poueymirou, the previous board president, said that four administrators stayed on until last April. By then, the store had sold its property and paid its main creditors what it could—70 cents on the dollar. But now Staples, the vice president, and the treasurer work without paid staff.

“I’ve certainly been frustrated. There are many things that I’d rather be doing. But when I was elected, I accepted a responsibility. I still believe it’s important to keep the idea of cooperatives alive,” Staples said.

Staples explained cooperative principles: All members own shares in the business, have equal say in decisions, and receive dividends on the profits.

But Judith Hochberg, whose parents were founding members of the Co-op, said: “At no recent time was the community informed properly about the Co-op or co-ops generally, and it appeared to most as just another grocery store.”

Staples said the Co-op’s string of financial failures and lack of transparency made some board members doubt that community-run businesses are viable. But Staples said she believes in it and hopes residents can launch another cooperative store in the future.

Poueymirou, however, suggested that years ago the Co-op was uniquely valuable beyond its cooperative nature.

“Decades ago, we had classes on different cooking methods, fair trade and what it meant to be environmentally friendly before the term ‘green’ was even in use. It was the single unifying entity in a community that was going through urban renewal, the one place where people from different backgrounds and racial and ethnic origins came together,” he said.

Wells reflected Poueymirou’s image of the Co-op as the site where University and greater Hyde Park community members commingled. University-affiliated Co-op members, she said, often “wealthy people, or international people—they had their special products that the store would stock for them. We’d give the students jobs in the summer.”

But Wells said that a “series of misunderstandings all down the line” had ended that type of relationship. “[The University has] so much money that they do whatever they want to in the neighborhood,” said Jeanne Towns, who worked at the Co-op for 31 years.

The University became landlords of the East 55th Street store in 1984, according to Ilene Jo Reizner, assistant vice president of real estate operations at the University.

When Wells said, “We’re bitter that they shut down our store,” the bar filled with nods of agreement, and Towns suggested that the University, which had many members in the Co-op, shouldn’t have let their financial situation get so out of hand in the first place.

But University spokesman Robert Rosenberg disputed the idea that the Co-op was critical to Hyde Park.

“The store and its mission became less relevant to the community (both as a resource and as a commercial enterprise),” he said in an e-mail interview. He added that in his opinion, “It would be surprising if you or others could construct a credible economic or social argument for the Co-op’s contributions over the last two decades.”

Treasure Island, the family-owned Chicago grocery franchise that replaced the Co-op, has picked up many of the Co-op’s former customers. However, there are just some things the new store can’t replace, Towns said.

“If you want quality products, Treasure Island has more than filled the Co-op’s shoes, but it can’t come close to replicating the feeling of belonging at the Co-op,” she said.