Karen Heller: Weavers Way Co-op gets a ritzy rebirth

Henry Martin fills a bulk bin at the Weavers Way Co-op branch in West Mount Airy. The new store marks recovery from a financial crisis. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)

Weavers Way Co-op, the beloved and almost comically dilapidated Mount Airy institution, the floor a Jackson Pollock of organic food spillage, reopened its doors Sunday after eight weeks of renovation, the first in 20 years and easily a decade overdue.

Only problem? The store is too nice, astonishingly nice. It's like Extreme Makeover: Co-op Edition.

"I'm not good enough for this place," announced one member in the handsome downstairs with new wood floors and ambient lighting that replaced the old interrogation-room fixtures. Upstairs features "the Incredible Bulk," the great wall of pasta, nuts, oil and a dizzying choice of granolas.

Many Mount Airyites complained, as is their Olympic-level forte, that the Chestnut Hill location, which opened two years ago, was too swell, too uptown for the cloth bag-toting likes of them.

Now, lo and behold, Mount Airy has a branch that's equally fetching, a touch of Brooklyn, a splash of Marin County within their midst.

Change comes slowly to this Northwest neighborhood. It's home to arguably the city's highest concentration of Prius owners and The Nation subscribers. It's like a college town without a college.

Instead, Mount Airy has the co-op, its town square and graduate seminar room, where members don't merely shop but also attempt to solve the world's most pressing problems, frequently by debate in the high-traffic produce area as close to dinnertime as possible.

The new store is even more miraculous considering that, in 2002, the co-op suffered a financial crisis that almost drove it under. The longtime bookkeeper kept hidden from staff and members that Weavers Way was sinking in debt. In the process, she wrote almost 5,000 bad checks resulting in $140,000 in overdraft fees.

Today, Weavers Way has 5,000 member households, more than double the number of a decade ago, and it manages two working farms while providing teaching in schools and fresh food to a shelter. The co-op employs almost 150 people, many of them with health insurance, 401(k)s and paid holidays, benefits rare in food service. Last year, the two branches earned $17 million in sales.

Much of this success is due to general manager Glenn Bergman, who eight years ago quit his career at a huge food corporation and took a massive pay cut to shepherd the co-op.

He takes little credit, but Bergman is a hero. He worked 11 hours Sunday as he watched members walk into their old haunt with looks of astonishment and wonder. I'm going to have to dress better, one said. My house price just spiked, extolled another.

"I love signing the checks to our suppliers," says Bergman. Those would be the checks that no longer bounce. "I'll sign them knowing that our food and soap are coming from so many local providers." Now he wants to improve customer service.

"Glenn has a lot of energy and a lot of vision to move this business forward. We struggled for so long," says meat, poultry and seafood manager Dale Kinley, a Weavers Way staffer for 31 years. "He helped get us out of the muck and the mire."

A few years ago, Kinley suffered a brutal fall while hiking, breaking two legs and an arm. Doctors feared she'd never walk again while her medical bills outstripped the coverage.

A colleague posted a sign in the store soliciting donations. Within weeks, Kinley had $10,000. "Overwhelming," she says. "The best part of this job is working with the membership. In some ways, they're family members."

With change comes resistance. Purchasing manager Norman Weiss, a staffer for more than 30 years, bemoans dropping the work requirement of six hours annually for each household member 16 or older, a requirement that had doctors mopping floors and executives slicing cheese.

Says Weiss: "We've created kind of a less pure co-op experience, but it's available to more people, but it's not as deep an experience."

Communications manager (and mystery author) Jon McGoran, yet another staffer of three decades, watches members as they enter the store in amazement. "You realize how much this matters in people's lives," he says. "I'm surprised at the depth of emotional reaction, how we're at the center of their community." The store's vital to Mount Airy, and now to Chestnut Hill. Many members stop to shop for dinner daily, as though they lived in France - well, France with a lot of granola and quinoa.

Weavers Way's true success, Bergman says, is how many other neighborhoods and towns have added co-ops or plan to: Elkins Park, South Philadelphia, Kensington, West Philadelphia, Doylestown, Swarthmore.

"Every community should own its own grocery store, and every community should own its own farm," Bergman tells me.

"My goal has been to help grow the city, make the city greener, plant farms, train young people to farm, and to work to expand the operations so more people would have a better chance through better pay and health insurance." All of which he's done.

As for the store being too wonderful, Weiss cautions patience: "It will be fancy for some years, then it will be decrepit and start looking like crap again."


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.