If you have ever strolled around North Pleasant Street in downtown Amherst and passed this market while getting your Starbucks fix, and wondered, “What the heck is that funny little store?” then today is a good day for you. I’m gonna tell you all about it.
This past summer, I’ve been interning at All Things Local (ATL) Cooperative Market in Amherst, MA.
Since January of this year, I have regularly volunteered my time at ATL on Sunday mornings, mostly because I had recently moved to Amherst and had a strong desire to become familiar with the local food system and community. But I realized that I had little to no knowledge of how our co-op actually functioned, so the idea of becoming a serious, observant, investigative intern seemed fitting for me.
How did All Things Local begin?
From their website, “All Things Local began as a Transition Amherst project. Tina Clarke, a local Transition leader introduced us to a unique model in operation at Local Roots Market in Wooster, OH. Members of the Transition Amherst grew excited about the idea of an All Things Local market in Amherst, which would be supplied by our many local producers. A Founding Board of Directors slowly built momentum around the idea until a site in downtown Amherst became available in Summer 2013. The Board quickly raised the money to secure the site and began to build its membership and attract vendors to the market. The market opened on November 23rd, 2013 and held its Grand Opening on March 1st 2014…You may think of us as a year-round farmers market that sells everything from organic spinach to baby shoes.”
ATL uses a cooperative model, which means it is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise. It is a business that is owned and controlled by the people who use it and that returns profits (ATL returns 70% of retail sales to producers) back to its members. Cooperative businesses focus more on service rather than investment, thus money is kept within the community.
Cooperatives operated by the “Seven Cooperative Principles” as agreed upon by the International Cooperative Alliance which are as listed:
- Voluntary and open membership
- Democratic member control
- Member economic participation
- Autonomy and independence
- Education, training, and information
- Cooperation among cooperatives
- Concern for community
Between working our store cash register, restocking shelves, cleaning, emailing members, making phone calls, attending meetings & workshops, answering customer questions, selling memberships, and gawking at the amazing fruits and vegetables our producers bring in, I learned the challenges ATL faces. I asked my primary manager, Allison Potter, what she thought the hardest part of running ATL is. She replied, “There are so many different people to listen to that it can be difficult to filter through everybody’s suggestions and opinions. As the face of this co-op, I constantly have to check myself to make sure I’m not imposing my own agenda, to make sure it’s not All Things Allison.” Competition is another challenge; the cooperative model has become very popular in recent years, which is good for the overall community but bad for small, spring-board businesses like ATL. There is a struggle to create a sense of individuality and uniqueness that will secure loyal customers when they could buy the same products at a larger co-op or corporation down the street. Competition makes Principle #6, “Cooperation among Cooperatives”, challenging to maintain.
Finally, during my conversation with Allison, we discussed ATL’s future goals and visions. This includes improving food security, enhancing local employment, promoting sustainable living by offering a marketplace for locally produced goods within the Pioneer Valley, advance regional economic well-being, educating the local population about agriculture and food preservation, and maintaining community outreach.
Now that I’ve taken the time to educate myself and have become more aware of our vision, I’m motivated and enthusiastic to continue my time at ATL and see what the harvest season brings to our tables.