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Willy Street Co-op and Cooperative History

Willy West is twinkling at us just over the horizon. With the new store enticing many new folks to join the Co-op, it seems like the perfect time to brush up on the history of the cooperative movement.

First, let’s start with the basics. What is a “cooperative” exactly? A cooperative, or “co-op” is comprised of people working together for a common goal that they probably could not accomplish by themselves. It is a member-owned, member-controlled business that operates for the mutual benefit of all members and according to common principles established for cooperatives.

There are cooperative versions of myriad kinds of businesses, from retail stores to farms to childcare. Accordingly, there are also different types of cooperatives. All of them fit into the definition listed above, but are further classified by who the members are, and what they do.

Who Are the Owners?
Primary co-ops have members that are individuals or households, and usually operate stores or are direct providers of goods and services. Willy Street Co-op is an example of a “primary cooperative,” since people like YOU are our Owners!

A Secondary Co-op has members that are co-ops, businesses or organizations. These co-ops usually provide wholesaling or supplier services.

What Does It Do?
When looking at the different types of cooperatives out there, another way to better understand what they’re about it to look at what they are doing. A Worker Co-op is a business that is owned and controlled on a democratic basis by its employees. In other words, employees completely and exclusively own the co-op. One example of a worker cooperative in our community is Union Cab.

Other forms of co-ops fall into the Consumer Co-op category. Consumer co-ops provide goods and services primarily for personal consumption. They are owned by those receiving the goods and services. Willy Street Co-op falls under this cooperative definition, since we sell products for the personal use and consumption of our Owners.
Where did they come from?

There are thousands upon thousands of co-ops existing throughout the world. Housing cooperatives, agricultural cooperatives, credit unions, cooperative wholesale societies, cooperative unions, utility cooperatives, building cooperatives, social cooperatives... the list goes on and on. But where was the first cooperative seed planted and how did it grow into this incredible movement?

Really, it’s hard to say with absolute, 100% certainty when the first co-op was formed, or where. There is one co-op, however, that is considered to be the founding cooperative, the game changer, the great inspiration. This co-op wrote the 7 Cooperative Principles that continue to guide co-ops to this day. It was known as the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society.
To frame this story, picture late 18th toearly 19th century England. The nation was in the middle of thick of the Industrial Revolution, with all its attendant sweeping changes. Cities were pulling workers in from the countryside to fill increasing manufacturing needs. As a result, people had less time to grow their own food. For perhaps the first time in history, people were truly dependent on the stores where they were able to purchase food. This dependency unfortunately offered opportunities for oppression and corruption, of which companies took full advantage. Many factories, rather than paying their employees with the national currency, instead paid with company “chits.” These chits were only viable at company-owned stores, which allowed for an incredible concentration of power in the hands of factory and store owners. The quality of food was very poor, and the product selection was tiny. Adulterated food, like sawdust being mixed with flour, increased profits for storeowners and decreased the health of workers. It was an abysmal situation for workers, and many started to fight back.

To take back control of the food and products workers needed, buying groups began to form. Individuals would pool whatever money they had and buy food together, directly from wholesalers. This gave them greater freedom to buy what they really wanted, and the power to demand higher quality products while paying lower prices. The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society (REPS) was born from a group like this.

Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society
Who were the members of this particular buying club turned cooperative? The members of REPS were part of a group of flannel workers that went on strike in 1843. The price of flannel in the marketplace was rising steadily, but the wages of flannel workers was staying abysmally low. Our cooperative pioneers demanded wage increases to reflect the fattening purse of the factory owners. They rallied together and the strike began.

Unfortunately, the strike failed. Still frustrated by the squalid living and working conditions endemic to their community, as well as the rampant unemployment keeping families poor and desperate, the flannel weavers joined with others in the textile industry. They developed a sweeping vision of a more just society, and created a plan to improve the lives of the working class in their community. What was the first step in their process? Opening a small retail shop that would sell basic necessities that were high quality but also affordable. They decided to form a cooperative to found and run this business while working toward their higher visions of equality and societal change. Cooperatives had already appeared around England, with varying degrees of success. Members of this cooperative had studied the cooperative ideas espoused by their peers, and were also well versed in contemporary political and economic theory. Together, members of the group pooled their collective knowledge and set out some guiding principles for their (and all) cooperatives. Originally called the Rochdale Principles, these are known today as the Cooperative Principles.

The Rochdale Society members scrimped and saved until they were able to put 28 pounds toward starting their business. Legend has it that there was 1 pound contributed by each of the 28 original members, but in reality as many as 44 people are linked with the beginning of the REPS. They used the money to rent some space and stock their shelves at 31 Toad Lane with the absolute essentials: flour, sugar, butter and oatmeal. When the gas company shut off their lights (the owners of the gas company had a vested interest in making sure this small rebellion against the status quo failed), they added candles to the mix. The shop was initially open on Monday and Saturday evenings—by early 1845 it was open every evening except Tuesday and Sunday. In 1849 the REPS was able to purchase and refurbish the shop and expand their offerings. By the 1850s the society had 600 members and an annual turnover of 13,800 pounds! Other groups and co-ops began to form, using the Rochdale Principles to guide their process and the day-to-day running of their businesses. In a time of rampant, unchecked capitalism, this was a great success for cooperatives.

Many people have a misconception that the cooperative movement began in the 1960s–1970s in the USA. Truly, the cooperative movement was born in the middle of the industrial revolution, founded by members of the disenfranchised working class determined to make their communities better.

The Cooperative Whats?
Perhaps the most notable difference between the Rochdale Society and co-ops that preceded it was the creation of the Cooperative Principles. Members of Rochdale studied why other cooperatives struggled or failed, while also exploring common philosophies and ideals. They wrote their Rochdale Principles as guiding lights for not just their endeavor, but all co-ops. Withfew changes, these principles have guided cooperatives throughout the world since their creation. The current Cooperative Principles are as follows:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
    Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

  2. Democratic Member Control
    Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. Members have equal voting rights—one member, one vote.

  3. Members’ Economic Participation
    Members contribute equally to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative.

  4. Autonomy and Independence
    Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.

  5. Education, Training, and Information
    Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public about the nature and benefits of cooperatives.

  6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives
    Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional, and international structures. This was very important in the development of early co-ops, since members of varying organizations were working together instead of fighting against one another.

  7. Concern for Community
    While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work to improve the quality of life in the areas they serve.


The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society developed these operating principles to help themselves and others avoid the mistakes made by earlier co-ops. They also encouraged additional cooperative businesses to form and help their communities. Indeed, just 10 years later the British cooperative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 cooperatives!

Co-ops in America
Though the REPS is widely considered the first “successful” cooperative, the United States of America has a history of cooperative organizing from the very beginning. British colonists experimented with buying groups, co-ops, and other ways to bring about greater economic equality across the Atlantic. It’s no surprise the cooperative ideals shaping Britain traveled across the ocean with settlers. Perhaps the earliestco-op in the U.S. was established by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. Called “The Philadelphia Contributorship for the Insurance of Homes from Loss by Fire,” it is the oldest continuing co-op in the United states. Indeed, it pre-dates the REPS by almost 100 years!

Farmers were the founders of most early American co-ops. Some co-ops formed to help farmers buy supplies at lower rates, like seed, equipment and tools. Other marketing co-ops worked to obtain better prices for goods by combining crops and selling in large quantities. Still others provided storage or processing services, such as grain elevators, or cheese-making.

The face of cooperatives in the U.S. changed in the mid 1800s. Rather than just being producer co-ops working for the good of farmers, consumer cooperatives began to form. News of Rochdale’s success inspired consumers in the United States to form “consumer protection unions.” Like buying clubs, these “protective unions” worked to secure high quality goods for lower prices. Unfortunately, times were tough and highly contentious in the mid and late 1800s in the U.S. Social upheaval around issues of slavery, immigration, child labor laws, and women’s rights combined with rapid technological advancement. Americans were hotly divided on multiple fronts, which dissolved many bonds of friendship and camaraderie. Many of these buying groups reflected the times and became fiercely divided over political and social issues. By the end of the Civil War, nearly all of them were out of business.

Really, consumer cooperatives didn’t start making an impact in the U.S. until the 1900s. The history of cooperatives in the 1900s can be clearly divided into three “waves:” the “Rochdale Plan,” the EPIC Campaign/New Deal cooperatives, and the “New Wave.”

The first of these great waves of consumer cooperatives, the “Rochdale Plan,” began in the early 1900s. Inspired by the continued success of consumer co-ops in Europe, Americans once again organized into buying clubs to get better bangs for their bucks. The main difference this time was that most of the wholesalers from which these groups purchased their goods were cooperatively run. Instead of remaining a buying club indefinitely, the wholesaler would gradually guide the group to found and run their own retail outlet. It was a massively successful strategy. In 1920, there were 2,600 consumer co-ops in the U.S.—all but 11 were general stores—and 80% were in towns with populations of less than 2,500. Combined sales volume for these stores was about $260 million. In this case, the movement’s success actually worked against it. Wholesalers couldn’t keep up with the ever-increasing demand from more buying clubs, and retail outlets didn’t always have the support they needed. By 1930, most of the co-ops were closed, and the entire system crumbled.

Despite the rollercoaster ride of the 1920s, the U.S. cooperative movement certainly wasn’t over! The second wave of cooperatives swept in right on the heels of the “Rochdale Plan,” around the Great Depression in the 1930s. The California “End Poverty in California (EPIC)” campaign established and promoted “self-help” co-ops. Essentially, co-ops were seen as being excellent vehicles for communities to economically empower themselves, even in the hardest of times. Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese clergyman in the U.S. at the time, inspired the formation of many additional co-ops. Kagawa preached a social gospel of “brotherhood economics,” which was his term for cooperation. “Cooperatives,” he said, “are the foundation of world peace. They are the love principle in action. Whether we like it or not there is no other way but cooperatives.” Another boon to cooperatives was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The New Deal included provisions for cooperatives in urban areas. Consumer co-ops were provided with New Deal technical assistance to help them run smoothly. Many of these supported cooperatives ended up being very successful. Someleading consumer co-ops were launched in this period—in Berkeley, Palo Alto, Eau Claire (Wisconsin), Hanover (New Hampshire), and Hyde Park (a Chicago, Illinois neighborhood), and Greenbelt (Maryland—a Washington, D.C. suburb). All of these stores survived to their 50th anniversaries.

The third wave of consumer co-ops in the U.S. is perhaps the one most well known to those of us involved with Willy Street Co-op. In the 1960s and 1970s a “New Wave” of cooperation began. Blooming from the rich background of the 1960s counterculture and “back to the land” movements, these stores were opened by young people looking to turn their vision for a more just and equitable world into reality. Like all of the cooperative movements before them, these co-ops wanted to put economic control in the hands of the consumer, and to change their communities for the better. They wanted to be able to create a market for products and services that espoused their values whilechallenging the prevailing systems. These cooperatives focused on the necessities (food, housing, etc) as well as more specialized needs (daycare, health insurance, etc). Members worked to follow the Cooperative Principles, and espoused a philosophy very similar to Toyohiko Kagawa’s “love principle.” They built upon the waves of progress that came before them to inform their processes. These co-ops were created to promote a new way of living, and many sold only unrefined, whole and bulk foods. There were as many different operating styles as there were stores, but all were pioneers in what is know known as the natural foods industry. It was during this time that our own Co-op was formed!

Willy Street Co-op History
The Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative was formed back in September of 1973, when Common Market (an early food buying club in the neighborhood) moved to the south side of town. For the first year the Co-op shared a space with Nature’s Bakery at 1019 Williamson Street. It was a small, cramped space that was almost entirely focused on selling produce. At this point, the Co-op had no employees—it was run entirely on dedicated volunteer labor.

One year later the Co-op had grown enough that it needed to move into its own space. Down the street at 1014 Williamson Street the group secured 900 square feet of retail space, and a little bit of storage (one closet and some space on top of coolers). The store started to include bulk foods, some packaged foods, and things like toilet paper and matches. Six staff were hired at a stipend of $50 per week, but many did not take it, since the organization was far from financially secure. However, the membership continued to grow to 1,300 people, and sales grew right along with them!

In 1977 the Co-op outgrew its space at 1014 Williamson and found a new home at 1202 Williamson Street (where the Social Justice Center is now). Finally having some space to stretch with 1,600 square feet of retail, the store immediately expanded the selection of products available. Sales doubled on the very first day, and the membership grew to over 5,400 people. The Co-op’s first Board of Directors was hired in 1979, and the first General Manager was hired in 1982. The Co-op was able to expand into the other side of the building in 1985, which allowed them to have a deli and sell beer. It was a thrilling time for the Co-op!

The Co-op moved to its current eastside location in 1999, purchasing and renovating the old Eagles Club bowling alley. The Juice Bar was added, as was the Seafood Center, Okinawa Sushi, and the salad bar. Staff has more than tripled since the move in 1999, and membership has increased nearly as much. In the year after the move down the block, the Co-op’s membership grew from 5,400 to 9,800, and as of now we have 19,371 Owners! The Co-op has added a kitchen to help with making and baking the delicious food served in our Deli and Bakery sections, and to support the Co-op’s catering program.

Willy West
Now, the Co-op is beginning another chapter of its story—the opening of a second location, on University Avenue in Middleton. Willy West is scheduled to open the second week of November and will undoubtedly bring a whole new set of characters, experiences, and adventures to Willy Street Co-op’s history.

Willy West will have the same commitment to organic, local and sustainable foods that is central to the mission of our grocery cooperative. All of the departments currently thriving at Willy East will also have a place at Willy West, along with a fresh meat counter and a wine/beer section. The Deli will be expanded, featuring hot and cold salad bars and an extensive cheese selection.

The Willy West Community Room will have a fully stocked and beautiful kitchen, and will be available for private and group rentals. A variety of classes and art shows are already scheduled for the weeks after the store opens—keep an eye out for more information in the calendar/events section of the Reader and website! Another fabulous addition to Willy West will be the outdoor seating area, where patrons of the Co-op can relax with their favorite juice bar drink.

The product selection will start out mirroring the offerings at Willy East, but will certainly evolve over time to reflect the needs and wants of the community it serves. The Co-op’s “You Own It” program encourages customers to request items that they would like to see on the Co-op’s shelves and buyers to heed customers’ requests. If you see one of the purple “Own It!” tags by a product on the shelf, know that one of your peers requested its presence!

A sneak peak event will be happening on October 16th during Owner Appreciation weekend. Please come and see the new store pre-opening, if you have a chance! We are all pretty darn excited about it, and can’t wait to get to know our new neighbors. Truly, our Co-op is part of a long tradition of passionate activists who care deeply about the world around them, and who want to do their part to make it better. As an Owner of the Willy Street Co-op, you are supporting the Co-op’s work to change our food and our world for the better. Cheers to that.