Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bexley market co-op survives on bumper crop of creativity

FRED SQUILLANTE Dispatch photos
Store manager Annerose Schaffrin shows off some of the fresh greens at the Bexley Natural Market. The co-op is trying various activities to raise money to replace its produce cooler, including selling sponsorships of vegetables and fruit.

The Bexley market is similar to many independent natural-foods stores: the complex scent of spices, bottles of natural remedies, organic food and oddities such as ostrich meat.

By Elizabeth Gibson in the COLUMBUS DISPATCH egibson@dispatch.com

The Bexley Natural Market is one of central Ohio's last co-op grocery stores. Launched in 1976 by a group of women who wanted pesticide-free vegetables, today it is owned by 200 dues-paying members.

Acart approached the produce cooler.

Sally Lorrimer swept toward it and threw an arm around the shoulders of her customer and friend Jan Tague.

"Jan, could you tell us what your favorite vegetable is?" she asked, waiting until Tague chose spinach. "You're in luck. Spinach hasn't been taken yet."

If Tague donated $50 to help buy a new produce refrigerator, the store not only would put her name on a plaque above the spinach, Tague also would receive a glossy photo of her favorite greens in their new home.

It's kind of like those groups that ask people to sponsor a child in Africa and send a photo of the smiling child in return, Lorrimer said. Only instead, she's sending postcards on behalf of berries and carrots so that the Bexley Natural Market can retire a 15-year-old fridge making "strange, moody noises."

Members said the market's co-op business model uses creativity to try to hold its own against national organic specialty chains such as Whole Foods Market.

But the 33-year-old shop at 508 N. Cassady Ave. in northern Bexley is one of central Ohio's last co-op grocery stores, members said. It is owned by 200 dues-paying members who throw a potluck once a year to elect a board.

At the potluck this month, members discussed how to raise $1,500 for the new cooler, store manager Annerose Schaffrin said.

It's the sort of teamwork that launched the business in a living room in 1976, said Martha Markstein, a founding member. A group of women decided they wanted pesticide-free food, and eventually they opened a storefront.

One woman hunted down distributors; another kept the books. Some volunteered their husbands for repairs or tried their hand at the cash register.

"We were exhilarated because we had this new thing, and we couldn't stop talking about it," Markstein said. "We were accused of being hippies, but the only way we were hippie was we were involved in natural foods."

At age 81, she still volunteers in the store every day. It is open to anyone, but members get a discount based on how much they volunteer.

Schaffrin also started out as a volunteer after she moved to the U.S. from Germany 19 years ago.

"I saw this little store on the corner on the way from the airport. I was so relieved," she said. "I knew those big stores in the U.S., and I had hoped I wouldn't have to buy in such an anonymous place."

Her first time at the store, the staff took lids off all the spices because she didn't know their English names. Now, roles have reversed, and customers with names of exotic foods scribbled on scraps of paper come to Schaffrin to track down products.

If only, customers said, the grumbling refrigerator matched her efficiency.

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