Inside the door of the Durham Food Co-op, a hand-chiseled wooden sign announced it was not a traditional grocery store: It read "Peoples Intergalactic Food Conspiracy."
As a child, Nick Hawthorne-Johnson looked forward to seeing the sign, the murals on the walls outside and the warm, friendly feeling inside the store. "I remember going shopping there with my dad. Even though it was just a small place, it seemed like something bigger than just a grocery store."
After more than 35 years as a vanguard of Durham's funky, community-oriented culture, the co-op has closed its doors. In recent years, it struggled financially and suffered organizational strife that made it difficult to remain open.
Earlier this month, the Conspiracy sold its building on West Chapel Hill Street to Hawthorne-Johnson and his mother, Hettie Johnson, who plan to open an acupuncture clinic. The terms of the sale ensure the 1910 brick building that anchors an otherwise troubled commercial strip in the West End neighborhood of Durham will be preserved. Meanwhile, the co-op organization continues to operate as a buying club.
"It is sort of sad," Hawthorne-Johnson says of the co-op's closing. A 29-year-old Durham native, he has lived within a couple miles of the co-op most of his life. "But sometimes you have to close some doors in order to open some new doors. It's the end of that particular era of the co-op, but maybe something new and exciting for the area is possible."
A contract between buyer and seller preserves the building's murals for at least 15 years and stipulate that the space not be used as a pawn shop or to sell alcohol for off-site consumption, tobacco, weapons or pornography.
Hawthorne-Johnson is a general contractor, and his mother is a real estate agent. Together, they have purchased, renovated and rented several historic homes in the Burch Avenue and Morehead Hill neighborhoods through their company, Bull City Restoration.
But his deeper love is alternative medicine. He hopes his acupuncture clinic will cater to people living nearby, just as the food co-op strove to offer affordable, healthy food to the neighboring community.
Durham's is one of the oldest food co-ops in the nation. It began in 1971 as a buying club and opened the West Chapel Hill Street storefront in 1992 amid mounting debt. The 3,500-square-foot building, which had been home to a live music venue in the 1980s, shared one of the city's most eclectic blocks with the Ar-Razzaq Islamic Center, Durham Best Taxi, a tattoo shop and a storefront church, the Tabernacle of Joy.
Johnson purchased the building for $160,000. In addition to selling the building, the co-op recently borrowed money from Self-Help Credit Union to pay off outstanding debts.
Christine Westfall, a member of the co-op's board, laments the loss of the building but says she and the other members are pleased to see one of their own taking it over.
"Our mission has always been to serve the community, so to have the building go to this community acupuncture clinic was within the spirit of the kind of use we wanted the space put to," she says.
Meanwhile, Durham's retail food business has not been entirely ceded to national chains. Several members and former members of the co-op have formed a new co-op organization called Durham Central Market, which plans to open a larger, full-service grocery store based on a more conventional business model in the Durham Central Park area.
Michael Bacon, president of the market's board, says the current target opening date is early 2010. "Things are moving forward, we're on schedule, but it's a long process," he says. The group is still looking for a site.
"We take a lot of positive lessons from the Durham Food Co-op," Bacon says. "It's hard to call something that was open and served community for 37 years a failure." But the location was always a challenge, he adds, because there were not enough residents within a one-mile radius. "They were trying to go into a business district that had been really hurt by urban renewal and be a community landmark there, and at the same time stick to a very strict model of organic produce and things like that. Boy, we're sure finding out that all the details in trying to walk that line are very hard to deal with."
Westfall says she's excited about Durham Central Market and believes its more conventional approach is "a good idea."
"It was challenging to operate a natural food store at this scale," she says. "Natural foods had become a supermarket business by the mid-1990s, and it was hard for us to match or better retail places like Whole Foods or even Weaver Street Market," she says.
Hawthorne-Johnson held a sale of the building's contents to raise money for his clinic. The material included much of what he considers co-op memorabilia. But the hand-chiseled wooden sign announcing the Peoples Intergalactic Food Conspiracy now hangs in the back of the building, where the buying club will continue to receive and distribute bulk food orders for members.
On Jan. 10, the morning of the sale, the floors creaked under the feet of about a half-dozen people who browsed the remaining fixtures: one pine-green Sears Coldfront refrigerator; three old, gray steel desks; two empty plastic bins with colorful, handwritten labels that read "baby lima" and "great Northern."
The bulletin board was papered with notices, including the co-op's monthly balance sheet and a fan letter: "The Durham Food Co-op is a great place to shop. Thank you for still being here."
A woman chatted with the new owners, who were drinking coffee and greeting visitors: "There is so much good karma in this building, I'm sure you'll be successful."
Hawthorne-Johnson says he hopes to open his clinic in about 18 months. But first, he's driving with his girlfriend and his dog to Argentina.
Additional reporting by Lisa Sorg.