Cornerstone of Twin Cities’ cooperative movement could not overcome declining sales
Despite numerous attempts in recent years to pull itself out of the red, North Country Cooperative Grocery — the Twin Cities’ oldest co-op — plans to close its doors at 1929 S. Fifth St. by Sunday, Nov. 4.
After a vote just last spring to keep the co-op open despite debt and declining sales, the board of directors again brought the prospect to North Country members, who cast the fateful vote to close on Monday, Oct. 22.
“Sales have continued to decline and, without at least modest increases, it is just not tenable to remain open,” stated Gail Graham, general manager at Mississippi Market, in an email to the co-op community.
In June, North Country contracted with Mississippi Market to help rescue the failing business, in the form of part-time store management and assistance from a National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) consultant in preparing financial projections.
Opened in April, 1971 as the People’s Pantry, North Country is the metro area’s longest-standing co-op and a flagship of the cities’ modern cooperative movement.
Activism was always at the core of the co-op’s mission. “North Country Co-op wasn’t started to make money,” states the co-op’s website in the “About” section. “It was started by people who wanted to change the world for themselves, right here on the West Bank. They set out to start a co-op that would treat its workers, its shoppers, its community and the Earth in an ethical way they could all be proud of.”
North Country was one of the last of the true worker-owned and managed cooperatives until increasingly dire financial straits forced it to move more towards a less egalitarian management model three years ago.
Unfortunately, financial trouble has also been a longstanding part of the co-op’s history. A move to its current location 10 years ago exacerbated the situation, former marketing staffer Erik Esse told the Seward Profile at the end of 2004 – one year after the cooperative had bought its building and remodeled the store in an attempt to overcome financial difficulties. By the beginning of 2005, the co-op was forced to make some difficult decisions — changing the management model, decreasing salaries and discontinuing employee benefits, among other moves — to try to stay afloat.
In the end, “things couldn’t get turned around from the trouble they’ve had,” said Patrick Werle, who came on as manager this year as part of the contract with Mississippi Market.
Graham’s email states that the West Bank building will be put up for sale, and that “the board will work with a lawyer to make final arrangements for disbursement of the funds once a sale closes.”
In the meantime, the co-op hopes to sell the last of its inventory in the next week-and-a-half.
In her email, Graham thanked all of North Country’s supporters in recent years. “It is sad to see our oldest co-op close, and the board is committed to proceeding in such a way as to honor the long history of the co-op,” she said.
Chris Stedman contributed to this article