Leverett Village Co-op on the brink?: Members seeking ideas to drum up business at the struggling store

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-20-2023 3:23 PM

LEVERETT — A.J. Hastings stationery and newsstand helped to anchor downtown Amherst for 108 years before closing last year. Wilson’s department store was a centerpiece of Greenfield’s retail scene for 137 years until it shuttered in early 2020.

While only dating to the 1980s, when formed out of a buying club that began in the late 1970s, the Leverett Village Co-op has become a mainstay in the community. Whether this will remain the case, or whether the co-op will follow Hastings and Wilson’s into the history books, is uncertain for co-op board member Don Southwick.

“I’ve seen many businesses come and go through the years and I’ve seen how much we miss these places when they’re gone,” Southwick, a 30-year resident of Leverett who grew up in Amherst, said at a community forum at Leverett Town Hall last week. “There is nothing else in Leverett that brings people together like the co-op. It would be a shame to lose this.”

Southwick spoke at a community gathering that brought about 50 people to address an emergency situation the co-op finds itself in for the first time since the fall of 2019, when it was at risk of dissolving in facing a $200,000 debt and owing money to  vendors.

In the period since then, including during the height of the pandemic, the Leverett Village Co-op provided a small shopping experience that gave comfort to those who wanted to avoid the larger supermarkets and big box stores, drawing people back to the 180 Rattlesnake Gutter Road store in the Moore’s Corner section of town. The co-op currently has just under 950 members.

But as more normalcy returns, the co-op is again faced with financial challenges that prompted its board to update and solicit feedback on what can be done, understanding that there is often a lull in business during the winter when fewer people are trekking through the natural areas of Rattlesnake Gutter on foot or on bike, passing by the store on their way to and from Lake Wyola in Shutesbury or visiting the nearby Peace Pagoda on Cave Hill Road.

Board member Sam Black estimates that the co-op needs to increase its current sales by 1½ times to survive. Since last September, though, the co-op has seen an additional 20% drop in sales. “Despite all the efforts of the board, right now we do not have enough customers and sales to survive,” Black said.

The co-op is a grocery store, convenience store, package store, bakery and cafe, open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., serving both members and nonmembers. Before the meeting, the co-op’s board sent an open letter to the community, noting that it is struggling, even with all the efforts over the last 3½ years and its fiscal responsibility.

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“This is a heartbreaking realization for both staff, the board of directors and volunteers who work so hard every single day to operate a store and community gathering place that meets the community’s needs,” a letter sent to the community states. “We have crunched the numbers and the reality is that we need you to shop — and to shop more often. We also need volunteers to help with store tasks — we promise that part is really fun, and you will get to help save the co-op and be a part of something special: your community.”

“It hurts when we lose the places we care about. Especially when they are gone forever. We need our small businesses, and our small grocery stores are a vital part of their communities.”

Suggestions that came out of the meeting included offering more produce and wider prepared foods selections, having soft-serve ice cream and more vegan items, and doing more events for children. A volunteer delivery program was proposed, while other attendees asked how they could help and suggested an annual gift category and opportunities for donations.

Board member Liz Etheridge urged people to join as volunteers.

The co-op began as a buying club in which members saved money by getting together to buy basic foods in bulk. This mission changed after organizers branched off from an Amherst-based group in the late 1970s, first using space in Shutesbury Town Hall and then in 1982 sharing a tiny storefront across from its current site, at the corner of Rattlesnake Gutter and North Leverett roads, where the new building was ready in January 1991.

The co-op has been able to lower prices and expand stock of both organic and traditional, less expensive brands, as well as offering gluten-free items on the shelves and in the cafe. It also the only regular community gathering place, with live music year-round, summer artisans markets, artists displaying their works and pizza on the patio.

Martin Pittman, the president of the co-op’s board, said some optimism comes out of the meeting.

“This community support and energy makes me hopeful that we can keep the co-op going and avoid closing the store,” Pittman said.

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