Against the odds, the Durham Co-op opens, adds new life to a neighborhood | Durham County | Indy Week
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Against the odds, the Durham Co-op opens, adds new life to a neighborhood 

The Durham Co-op Market Grocery and Cafe in Durham, N.C.

Photo by Justin Cook

The Durham Co-op Market Grocery and Cafe in Durham, N.C.

After the rain, the power lines caught the oak tree on fire. So the firefighters came and put out the flames. Then the wind picked up.

Pam Campa and six of her fellow fundraisers were hunkered down at a house on Buchanan Boulevard, working the phones, trying to convince potential investors to donate to the Durham Co-op Market.

Campa stood on a side porch chatting with a woman who was leaning toward contributing.

Suddenly, there was a roar—"Oh my, there is a tree coming down," Campa told her. "I have to go now"—and a crash.

"I was surrounded by branches bigger around than my horse," Campa recalls. "But I was totally unharmed. I thought, 'Should I call this woman back?' "

Considering the circumstances, Campa did not. Nonetheless, the Durham Co-op raised $440,000 during that campaign, even though the market did not yet exist: not a building stud, not a concrete block, not even a hole in the ground.

After more than six years of planning and fund-raising and construction, the Durham Co-op Market opened last month at Chapel Hill and Kent streets on the West End.

The co-op occupies a special niche in the grocery world and in its neighborhood. It is one of only three locally owned grocers in Durham—Los Primos and King's Red and White being the others—and the only co-op, which means it is owned and managed by the community.

March marked a milestone for the co-op, but now the hard work begins: sticking around. The co-op's biggest competitor is Whole Foods (score big points for the co-op in creating a less frenzied shopping experience), but it is also vying for dollars with a nearby Food Lion, as well as Harris Teeter, Kroger, Aldi, Fresh Market and Walmart, which are miles away.

"A co-op can create a gathering place, more development and good jobs," says Don Moffitt, the co-op's project manager, "but not cheaper groceries."

That's because the national distribution network favors large chains, which because of their volume, receive deep discounts and pass them on to the customers. "Even though Walmart is not nearby, people who are counting their resources will drive or ride the bus because they can save money there. That's what hurt the Trosa grocery in East Durham."

The advantage of cooperative groceries, though, is the local control that keeps money circulating in the local economy. For example, the co-op's managers, who live in Durham, have prioritized recruiting workers from nearby underserved neighborhoods. The co-op focuses on North Carolina products and smaller vendors (even the shopping carts are built in New Bern) that operate largely outside the major distribution network. The buying decisions are made by local managers. And to make its items more affordable for low-income families, the co-op offers discounts to members who receive SNAP and provides a list of staples that can be bought for no more than $50.

An old aerial map of the West End neighborhood adorns the window above patrons at the Durham Co-op Market and Cafe - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • An old aerial map of the West End neighborhood adorns the window above patrons at the Durham Co-op Market and Cafe

At 10,000 square feet, the Durham Co-op Grocery is small by supermarket standards, but huge compared to the former co-op, which was a third of that size. Filled with natural light and well-stocked shelves, it bears no resemblance to the "Peoples Intergalactic Food Conspiracy," the nickname of the bygone store.

A former employee of the old co-op noted that this was not the nickname, but the registered name.

"At the old store, we struggled with everything," says Campa, one of its founders, who is on the board of the new co-op. "It was exhausting. But the new co-op is clean and safe and bright and airy."

After a brief but violent downpour on the morning of May 14, 2011, Moffitt entered the co-op office, one of several businesses in Liberty Warehouse.

"The roof collapsed," Moffitt told Michael Bacon, a steering committee member, by phone. "The office is flooded."

The co-op, originally known as Durham Central Market, was slated to be built near Liberty Warehouse on a vacant lot at Mangum and Broadway streets. At the time, Central Park was a neighborhood on the verge of transforming into the bustling area it is today.

"We were reading the signs that the Durham Central Park [organization] had created a vital space in an abandoned district," says Bacon. "There was available land and a need for a grocery."

But after the 2008 financial crash, lending dried up. Several opening dates were shelved. Finally, in 2013, Self-Help Ventures Fund stepped in and bought several lots in the West End that, like Central Park of yore, was also on the brink. As part of the $13 million project, it tore down All My Children Daycare and the West End Community Center, moved a house and financed construction of two buildings. Rechristened the Durham Co-op Market, the grocery was named the first tenant of Kent Corner. The Duke Center for Child & Family Health was the second.

The West End and its surrounding neighborhoods—Lyon Park, Morehead Hill, Lakewood, Forest Hills and Trinity Park—encompass one of Durham's most ethnically and economically diverse areas. The adjoining residential neighborhoods are a jumble of restored Victorians, old bungalows and new, generic apartment complexes, where median household incomes ranging from under $25,000 to nearly $70,000 a year.

Bacon thought the location in what was then a dead zone had contributed to the demise of the old co-op. But in the way that life often circles back on itself, the new grocery is in the same block as the old co-op building, which now houses the popular Cookery.

"People have been operating along that stretch because it's cheap, not because the location was appealing to them," Moffitt says. "But that changes over time."

The co-op buys much of its produce from North Carolina farmers and vendors - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • The co-op buys much of its produce from North Carolina farmers and vendors

After the donkey was bitten in the spring of 2010, the co-op hosted Family Farm Day, a fundraiser at Elodie Farms in northern Durham County. The donkey died of rabies a week later, and the county health department urged people who had visited the farm on March 27 to see their doctor.

The donkey had been pastured away from visitors, so no one had been exposed to him. However, the co-op had failed to raise enough money at the event to cover costs, Bacon says, and "A rabid donkey is not what we wanted associated with the brand."

Five years later, nearly to the day of the donkey, the Durham Co-op opened, having overcome dozens of challenges since its inception.

"This was a lot of people coming together, who went out and asked people for $100. And all they would get is a note, a brochure and a T-shirt. It was ridiculous," Bacon says. "But Durham really wanted it. The dreams you dream with other people—when that comes true it's unbelievable."

The Durham Co-op features a cafe, deli and hot bar. - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • Photo by Justin Cook
  • The Durham Co-op features a cafe, deli and hot bar.


HOW DOES A CO-OP WORK?

You don’t have to be a member of the co-op to shop there. It is open to the entire community.

A membership, also known as an ownership share, entitles you to partial ownership of the store. You can vote for the board of directors, which oversees the mission of the co-op, and run for the board yourself. You also receive periodic special discounts on store items.

An individual ownership is a one-time $100 fee. Add another shopper for $40 more.

Businesses can buy in as well. For $250, this ownership level allows a business to assign up to 25 employees a membership number to shop.

Food For All ownership shares are available for households receiving SNAP benefits. For $15, this provides the same ownership privileges while offering an additional 10 percent discount on all purchases except for alcohol.

Applications for all ownership types are available at the store.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A trip to bountiful."

  • "The dreams you dream with other people—when that comes true it's unbelievable."

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