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Art Ames: A tribute to the Berkshire Co-op Market

Remain a supportive critic of the Co-op. Constructive criticism is one of the strengths they have as an organization that simply doesn’t exist often enough. In today’s economic reality, it’s easy for anyone to lose their way. The Co-op has always made decisions based on its ends. If you feel that they are swaying from what’s important, speak up loudly and go to an occasional board meeting ... the board of directors is here to represent owners’ needs.

Great Barrington — It all feels just a bit surreal. As you likely know by now, after 13+ years as the General Manager of the Berkshire Co-op Market, I’m moving on. May 31st will be my last day. I’m not sure how I feel, and right now, I’m numb, simply because the Co-op has been such an integral part of my life for those 13 years. Ask me later in June, when you see me shopping in the Co-op and Guido’s.

First of all, as someone more famous once said, “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” I am not retiring. In fact, if you know me, can you even imagine me retiring? I’ve got too much that I want to do for that. The reality is that after these many years, I consider the area to be my home. Right this moment, I plan on taking much of June simply adjusting to not being with the Co-op any longer, and to prepare for my next gig. Honestly, I just don’t know what that will be…yet. I certainly want to stay involved and invested in the community, making money for the sake of making money doesn’t feel productive to me, and I’m a true believer that each of us can make a positive difference in the world. OMG! That sounds like non-profit, and I’m really trying not to be a masochist…but we’ll see. Honestly, if you hear of an opportunity that makes you think of me …in a good way, of course…please let me know!

The former location of the Co-op on Rossetter Street.
The former location of the Co-op on Rossetter Street.

My first week at the Co-op was at the old store on Rosseter Street, early in May, 2002. I still remember a couple of particular incidents that first week. On my first day, the one and only toilet stopped working. In my old job I would have called maintenance, and if it were more serious, corporate engineering. Instead, I trucked on over to Carr Hardware, bought the tank innards and, after repeated tries, managed to fix the toilet. Not bad for a couple of hours of work, though surprisingly toilet repair was not included in the job description. I was feeling very much at home. The next morning, our produce order had come and gone, and bananas weren’t delivered. Every grocery person in the world knows that bananas are a key item in any produce department, so with a “can do” attitude, I marched into the produce department and told Phillip to go ahead and find conventional bananas to get us through the next few days and to put up a sign apologizing for not having organic bananas. (Today, they must be organic and fair trade). I was pumped… problem solved! Then I met Fred, who had been standing there and had heard the conversation. Fred, one of my favorite owners, introduced himself to me and then tore into me…saying all the right things. How dare I bring in conventional products! That was not what the Co-op was here for…we had a bigger mission…etc. He was right, and I was chastised, as I quietly turned to Phillip and suggested that he simply put up a sign for our customers apologizing for the lack of product. It was a portent of things to come…Co-op owners and customers are never shy or reticent with their feelings. I love it and recognize this is what makes the Co-op so damned strong, and I thank Fred for educating me quite early in my Co-op career.

UnknownI remember being in my “office”…the “office” was actually a corner in the garage, and even though it was only May, the thermometer on my desk read that it was 101 degrees in there. It got so hot each day that I went to work with a change of clothes or two. The good news is that the heat receded during the winter, as I would discover. The bad news is that it got down to 25 degrees at my desk in the winter, but I digress. Anyhow, two days into my illustrious career, I took a call from a part-time cashier. He was calling in sick, in fact, was going to have to miss two weeks of work! Just beginning to become acquainted with my staff, I was naturally very concerned for this cashier, and I could tell that he didn’t want to reveal the issue, nor did I want to infringe on his confidentiality. He finally revealed the terrible situation…he had been to the barber/hairdresser and a catastrophe had happened…so severe that he felt that he’d have to stay indoors for a couple of weeks. Admittedly, initially speechless, I collected my thoughts, and did what any GM would do…I solved the problem. He didn’t have any money, so I convinced him to drive to the Co-op, where I met him at the car so that he wouldn’t have to reveal himself, handed him $20 and instructed him to go buy a hat and report to work in an hour. Phew! Crisis diverted.

What else stands out for me? As we built the new store on Bridge Street, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, yet we were moving forward. Two days before opening, a particularly nasty problem arose and I was simply out of ideas…and exhausted, physically and mentally. It had been a very long year. Anyhow, I looked outside and noticed people lining up. I had forgotten about our community event…forming a line from our old location to our new, made up of people in the community, and passing groceries down the line as a celebration. I went outside, to walk the line and thank people and emotion took over. I couldn’t talk, and blamed my tears on the cold weather…it was even snowing and it was only October. I instantly recognized community and knew for certain that we would succeed and that I was home. That was in 2003. Oh…and that unsolvable problem got solved.

CROPPEDCo-opOh…and this happened too. A few of you may recall that at the same time as our move to Bridge Street, we transitioned to a patronage dividend system and ceased owner discounts at the register. We had spent months educating our owners and the truly vast majority supported the change. Naturally, there are always a few insistent and verbal holdouts. Coincidentally, we had also just started our still continuing customer/owner comments, and I saved two from that month. One read “Art, thank you so much for taking a controversial matter and listening to all of us. I’m not sure how you managed to find this solution that will work for all of us, but this type of cooperation is needed more than ever in Great Barrington. You are truly our local version of Gandhi.” The other read “Too many changes! Why is the Co-op going corporate! You made a huge mistake. The last thing we need is someone dictating what we should be doing. What are you? Hitler?” Indeed, fellow readers, in the same week, maybe even the same day, I had been compared to Gandhi AND Hitler! I’d like to believe that in my time here, I’ve managed somehow to fall somewhere between the two…but that’s when I absolutely realized that in order to do my job, I would need to aggravate everybody equally. I think I’ve succeeded.

I’ve loved the customer comment cards that we would get virtually every single day. Maybe my favorite was the customer who suggested we reserve a portion of our parking lot for expensive cars so that there would be less of a risk of their car getting dinged. Maybe it was the customer who believed that, because we were a Co-op, we should eliminate cashiers and go on the honor system.

Years later, the suggestion box still fills up regularly with everything from requests for products to compliments to wonderful comments about staff to disgruntlement. I still love it! If the customers/owners didn’t care, they wouldn’t participate. Thank you! I could not have managed 13 years without your heartfelt investment.

Rendering of footprint of the 100 Bridge Street development, with footprint of new Co-op Market site.
Rendering of footprint of the 100 Bridge Street development, with footprint of new Co-op Market site.

The last few years have been challenging. Before I renewed my contract three years ago, I assumed we’d be nose deep in our relocation project, and the board of directors was kind enough to allow me to take a 4-month sabbatical. Yes, I hopped into my silly camper van and headed out for parts unknown…and had an absolute ball! I even brought a Co-op mascot with me, so that a piece of this crazy place rode alongside me. I came back realizing how lucky we are here in Berkshire County to have an abundance of local people and products, missing in other parts of the country, signed the contract, and got to work…except the project slowed up and slowed up and at times came to a standstill.

I will frankly tell you that the Co-op has been ready for almost three years to get this done, and that, in spite of a lack of progress, the project may still be alive largely due to my efforts and the support of the board of directors. I still firmly believe that 100 Bridge St. is the best solution for the Co-op, the community, and the town. I fully expected three years ago that we would have already been in our new building by now. It didn’t happen and I’m the kind of guy that goes crazy talking over and over about things and want to get things done so that we can move on to our next challenge. I do regret that I’m leaving without this project being finished. Here’s hoping that a change in participants will shake things up. The co-op needs and deserves a new location, and needs and deserves partners who have the wherewithal to get things done.

I had to divest myself of that one major regret, because I’m really pleased and proud of what the Co-op has accomplished in my tenure. Sales grew from $1.5 to $8.6 million a year. Local product sales grew from 16 percent to 33 percent a year. The Co-op has quietly loaned local farmers tens of thousands of interest free dollars to grow their farms. The organization is considered a national leader in the fight against GMO, has produced more General Managers for other co-ops than any other co-op in the country, has mentored dozens of other Co-ops across the country in a variety of ways, has developed a truly innovative relationship with all of the staff practicing two-way responsibility, instituted and maintained a living wage structure and, as hoped those many years ago, has become an integral hub of the community. I’ve seen some former employees go on to do amazing things within the community, and am proud to know that they were able to develop many of their tools right here. Scarier, I’ve been here long enough so that I recognize some of our current employees as toddlers who used to come to the Co-op with their families. I leave knowing how amazingly dedicated this group of people has become to each other and to the large community. I may be most proud of that.

A conceptual rendering of the 100 Bridge Street project, with new Co-op at right.
A conceptual rendering of the 100 Bridge Street project, with new Co-op at right.

After my first year here, a local reporter asked me to describe the job. I told her at the time that when I leave I have no doubt that I’ll be able to say it was at times the most difficult job I’ve ever had, and certainly the most rewarding. While that ends up being true, what I didn’t know at the time was how much fun I would have, how much laughter and joy would travel through the aisles and how the traditional barrier between customer and employee would break down…and yes, I will take some of the credit for that. It’s what makes us unique, thank goodness.

I’m not going far. I’ll be a shopper, am an owner, and hopefully will be a lender for the new store. Yet, I’ll miss every single one of you…because you care, and that’s far too rare today. The next GM will need your support, even though s/he will also fall somewhere between Gandhi and Hitler. I do think that one thing we’ve all learned together in these 13 years is that we don’t always have to agree on how to get there, as long as we agree on our motives. Some of you will celebrate my absence, some will not. Most important, I hope you continue to recognize the Co-op as the family it has become.

How can you help? Shop more often than ever while this darned construction is going on. Bring a friend, or three, and after you shop at the Co-op go into town and visit with the other locally owned businesses. Are you an associate? Become an owner instead!  We/they need your help right now!

Remain a supportive critic of the Co-op. Constructive criticism is one of the strengths they have as an organization that simply doesn’t exist often enough. In today’s economic reality, it’s easy for anyone to lose their way. The Co-op has always made decisions based on its ends. If you feel that they are swaying from what’s important, speak up loudly and go to an occasional board meeting. If you think they should be focusing on other things, please participate. Remember that the board of directors is here to represent owners’ needs, and their job is much easier if you tell them what you think! That’s the difference in being an owner and not a passive member.

If you don’t like what’s going on, don’t get mad and leave. Work with them. Are you truly opposed to GMO? Then don’t go to other stores to buy the products that the co-op can’t carry. YOU can change things as consumers. The Co-op can only give you the opportunity to do so. There’s a good deal of consumer power here, but only when everybody works together.

Finally, I’ve talked, worked, sometimes mentored, and often listened to many of you over the years. I expect the Co-op will continue to offer services, support, and advice for local businesses. As I mentioned earlier, however, I’m not going anywhere. Stay in touch! If we’ve been working together, and it isn’t strictly Co-op related, we can certainly continue. I’d like that. Wanna run an idea by me, even a crazy one? I’ve got lots of free time for a while. I’ve authorized the Co-op to release my personal e-mail and phone number…just ask them at the desk.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you all in the larger community for putting up with my antics over the years and thank you for wonderful memories and experiences that will last my lifetime, and thank you for helping me try to lead an organization that can be an honest alternative model for others.

See you at the Co-op.

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