Co-op Market
Uploaded: Wednesday, March 14, 2001 12 a.m.

From humble beginnings in troubled times
Financial problems dogged Co-op

Thirty-five people came together in Palo Alto in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, to form a cooperative food-buying club to save money during dire times.

That enterprise grew over the years to, at different times, six large grocery stores from Menlo Park to Sunnyvale. It also included gas stations, a dry cleaners, a pharmacy, and 28,000 members.

The Consumers Cooperative Society of Palo Alto will continue to exist once the Palo Alto Co-op Market on Middlefield Road empties its shelves and closes its doors for the last time this spring. But it will exist in name only.

After 66 years of pursuing the cooperative notion of people banding together to help each other, the Consumers Cooperative Society of Palo Alto won't be selling anything to anyone any longer.

The Co-op started modestly. It occupied a downstairs portion of a house on Bryant Street near downtown Palo Alto. After a few years, the effort moved to a small storefront on Florence Street, also near downtown.

 

This house on Bryant Street in Palo Alto was home to the first efforts of the Consumers Cooperative Society of Palo Alto in 1935.
Photo: Palo Alto Historical Association
The first larger store was at 164 California Ave. It would later become the site, in the late 1940s, of one of the first modern supermarkets on the West Coast when the California Avenue store was rebuilt.

The California Avenue store had Palo Alto's first self-serve meat counter, an ice cream counter with nine hand-packed flavors, and its own bakery.

The Co-op topped $3 million in sales in 1953, a milestone achievement proudly trumpeted in the cooperative's newsletter.

Stores were later opened in Sunnyvale and nearby Mountain View. The Co-op also raised $120,000 to fund the opening of a store in 1971 in Palo Alto, on Bay Road at University Avenue in what was then the Nairobi Shopping Center. After losing $180,000 in eight months, the store was quickly shuttered.

The Co-op has always been about philosophy as much as groceries, and sometimes more expensive products were purchased for political reasons (from union versus non-union growers, for example).

Even as the Co-op was expanding, it had financial problems, losing $700,000 in the 1960s alone.

In a newspaper clipping from the old Palo Alto Times from Dec. 13, 1963, there is a report of a meeting of 450 Co-op members who gathered to oppose the selling of the Sunnyvale store because of the cooperative's financial losses.

In time, the Sunnyvale store was sold, along with all the others.

In 1988, the Co-op sold off its former flagship California Avenue store and its newest store in Menlo Park, both to raise cash and to consolidate to a single-store operation on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto.

But after losing money for the last 18 years, the Co-op's last real option was to fold its tent, born out of idealism long ago, and enter the pages of history. Not willingly, but no less certainly.

--Don Kazak