Weavers Way, Thriving Why Mt. Airy's Funky Food Co-op Is Still A Happening Place At 25.

Posted: October 16, 1998

Hold the tofu and pass the tamari, please.

Weavers Way Co-op is 25 years old.

How to say happy birthday to a place that offers Garden Burgers, beef franks and Breyer's ice cream in the same aisle, that brings together aging hippies, young families, button-down-shirted business types and free-spirited college students and that defines Mount Airy in all its funky, progressive wonder?

Members plan a celebratory picnic tomorrow. This may be the only bash in Philadelphia where the hosts first assess their prospective guests to see who is vegetarian so they can provide the appropriate food. Entertainment will be eclectic - jazz, acoustic country, the Voices of Africa Choral Ensemble. Then there are the games - non-competitive, of course, in keeping with the local ethos.

If this presents a problem, you can always consult a bulletin board at the West Mount Airy co-op at 559 Carpenter Lane, where more therapists are represented than at a convention of the American Psychological Association. At least, it seems that way.

Got a better idea? You can note that, too, in the co-op's suggestion book, where members have kept a sometimes-choleric accounting of what they would like to see on their shelves. ``Can we please get some softer toilet paper?'' one member wrote. ``A pox on whoever got rid of plain normal Folger's coffee,'' another vented.

In all seriousness, the fact that Philadelphia's largest co-op - communally owned and operated to provide food and other items to members without huge commercial markups - has endured and continues to thrive is a remarkable achievement given that so many others are defunct, according to many of its 2,681 members. Weavers Way not only provides sustenance for the neighborhood, they say; it compels people to live in the community and then draws those residents together. The co-op is a neighborhood bodega, a gathering place, a work site, an inspiration.

``It's what brought me to Mount Airy,'' said Sarah James, 32, administrative assistant at the co-op who belonged to a co-op in Seattle and was only too happy to find one here.

``To plop this kind of store in some other neighborhood in the city or suburbs, it would be hard to make a go of it,'' said Ed McGann, general manager of Weavers Way. In his short-sleeved shirt, McGann, 47, looks more sporty than corporate, although he was once area supervisor of stores for Wawa. Coming here, said the Germantown native, was a ``real culture shock.''

Staying here, he might have added, has been nothing less than a grand adventure.

Last year, the co-op posted sales of more than $4.3 million. McGann said that increases in membership have been at ``a comfortable pace,'' but that a healthy future means taking the next step, which could eventually be opening at a second location, possibly on Germantown Avenue.

What had its roots in 1973 as a one-day-a-week buying club in a church basement became Weavers Way thanks in no small measure to Jules Timerman, a Mount Airyite who had a broader vision of what a co-op could become. As the Weavers Way handbook relates, ``The name was taken from the first successful co-op in the modern age, begun in 1848 by 28 striking weavers in Rochdale, England.''

The first store was so small there was no room to sell milk.

But look at Weavers Way now. Better yet, let Jonathan McGoran verbally lead the way, as he mans three cash registers and talks to customers (``Hello there, lad'') who seem to come in big crashing waves. McGoran is one of 40 paid staff. He also edits the co-op bimonthly tabloid, The Shuttle. Recent issues have dealt with such topics as irradiated beef, why geese fly in a V formation (they achieve greater flying range), and grapes. Seems the co-op was participating in the Union Farm Workers' boycott of California table grapes. But a lot of organic grape growers weren't using union labor.

``It was a total co-op aneurysm, labor versus organics, what are you going to do?'' McGoran said. Last December, the members voted to exclude organic grape growers from the boycott.

Weavers Way is certainly bigger than it used to be, and more businesslike, McGoran said. Where once the emphasis was on buying food in bulk so it would cost less, he said, the emphasis is now on natural foods. If you want to know the latest fad among foodies, Weavers Way is the place to come.

``Oat bran was hilarious,'' McGoran said. ``Within one-and-a-half to two months, everything had oat bran on it. It was an impressive phenomenon to behold.''

These days, he said, butter is big. Ice cream is making a comeback, and grab that soy.

One thing that hasn't changed is the diversity of co-op members, who pay a $20 annual membership fee and promise to work six hours a year at Weavers Way per adult in the household. Members can also buy health insurance through the co-op, join the credit union, or purchase heating oil.

``You've got your artist-musician crowd . . . kind of spacey, your massage-therapist-New-Age types. Some of them also seem kind of out of it,'' said assistant manager Norman Weiss. ``Then there's the highly educated academics and professionals who, though highly intelligent, cannot tie the twists'' on those plastic bags.

The other night, Norman Koerner, designated floor person who calls himself the resident socialist at Weavers Way (as if there is only one), greeted Dan Bachman, an econometrics forecaster with Wefa, between the registers and the deli counter. A lot of times, they talk about the economy, Koerner said. Even radicals have to deal with mortgage rates.

Bachman grinned: ``You go from here to corporate America; it's kind of fun.''

Earlier, near the Brandywine, McIntosh, Granny Smith, Mutsu and Gala apples, Bruce J. Sottolano, 61, a human services consultant, was fulfilling his work requirement bagging lettuce. He remembered a time 10 years earlier when he had absolutely no connection to the co-op. After a divorce, he had gone to a singles group at a local church. A woman asked him, ``Are you a member of Weavers Way?''

No, he replied.

``Well,'' she went on, ``you just seem like a person who's a member of Weavers Way.''

Sottolano took that to mean he was a person who does his own thing and doesn't worry about what other people think.

Many times, co-op members who come near closing time are so busy chatting with the friends they run into that they forget to leave, and the workers have to shoo them out the door. But on this night, people are disappearing into the dark like Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit.

Watching them leave, Koerner mused for a moment about the reasons for Weavers Way's success: ``Like they always say with businesses: Location, location, location.

``Mount Airy is the bedrock of the liberal intelligentsia in Philadelphia,'' he said. ``A lot of people here have the experience to pull this off. They've done organizing. They know how to work with people. That's what I'm most proud of. To me, the co-op reflects hope in human potential that we can achieve both efficiency and equality and justice.''

As any self-respecting member of Weavers Way would say: Amen to all that.

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