After years of financial struggle and organizational strife, the Durham Food Co-op has sold its building on West Chapel Hill Street.
The terms of 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.
Hettie Johnson and her son Nick Hawthorne-Johnson have purchased the building under strict terms that preserve its murals for at least 15 years. The deed also stipulates that the building not be used to sell alcohol (for off-site consumption), tobacco, weapons or pornography, nor can it be used as a pawn shop.
"I’m a Durham native and we’ve shopped at the food co-op since I was a kid," says Hawthorne-Johnson, who is 29 and lives in the neighborhood. "It is sort of sad. 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."
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 of the West End through their company, Bull City Restoration.
But Hawthorne-Johnson’s deeper love is alternative medicine. He plans to open an acupuncture clinic in the space, which he hopes will cater to people living nearby, just as the food co-op strove to offer affordable, healthy food to the neighboring community.
This Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Hawthorne-Johnson will sell the grocery store’s contents to make way—and raise money—for his own business. Items for sale include freezers, coolers, shelving and display cases, plus a lot of what he considers co-op memorabilia, like the checkout counter and cafe tables. "It’s always been a funky, eclectic kind of place," he says, "and all the stuff that was in there for all these years, it will all be moving out."
Durham’s is one of the oldest food co-ops in the nation. It began in 1971 as a buying club called the Peoples Intergalactic Food Conspiracy. It opened the West Chapel Hill Street storefront in 1992 amid mounting debt. The
1,4603,500-square foot building had previously been home to a live music venue in the 1980s. Johnson purchased the building for $160,000 this week.
To see the building inside and out and hear more of the history, check out this short documentary made in 2006.
Christine Westfall, who is on the Durham Food Co-op’s board, laments the loss of the building but says she and the other co-op members are pleased to see one of their own taking it over.
"Our mission has always been to serve the community, so 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.
The co-op recently borrowed money from Self-Help Credit Union to pay off outstanding debts.
Westfall says that as the organization winds down its retail business, it will use a portion of the building to receive bulk food orders for members of its buying club.
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.