A Co-op Grows in Mt. Airy
During the summer and fall of 1972, a pre-order food-buying group operated out of the basement of Summit Church at the corner of Westview and Greene streets. But Jules Timerman had a bigger plan: He was convinced Mt. Airy would support a full-fledged co-op.
Jules toured the neighborhood, selling apples from the back of his station wagon and talking about his co-op idea to anyone who would listen. When enough people had chipped in $10 apiece, Jules rented an old deli at 555 Carpenter Lane, stocked it with deli products and produce and opened for business on Jan. 13, 1973.
Fruit boxes lined the right side of the store. Big glass cases and a counter for cutting and wrapping cold cuts lined the left, with one aisle in between. The store was unheated and so small that there was no space for checkout. You’d go next door to 557 to pick up an order pad. You’d go back to 555 to select your groceries, and you’d write every product and price on the order pad. Then you’d return to 557 and pay for the groceries. Finally, you’d go back to 555 to pick up your order.
With no established credit, Jules had to empty the till each evening to finance the next day’s trip to the Food Distribution Center. But somehow, he kept things going, and word got around the neighborhood that produce at the Co-op was fresher and cheaper — and the cheese selection was great. By mid-1973, membership was up to 500. By December, a Board of Directors and bylaws were in place, and the first membership meeting was held at Summit Church.
In 1974, the Co-op purchased and moved into the larger corner store at 559 Carpenter Lane. A year later, Jules resigned as store manager, but the first member rebate — $4.99 per household — was paid out.
In subsequent years, Co-op members continued to meet twice a year to eat, greet and hash out issues. Sometimes there wasn’t a quorum, and someone would run up to the store to round up enough people to hold a vote. Nevertheless, decisions were made — a work requirement was instituted, a credit union and a heating oil co-op started and staff hired — and by 1978, Weavers Way had 19 employees, with health insurance and paid vacation for full-timers. Grapes were first boycotted in 1982, and the Co-op bought its first truck in 1989.
In 1990, an effort to organize members interested in buying organic produce presaged a new direction for the Co-op: an emphasis on healthy, sustainable food and fair food practices, not just price.
Gains — and Pains
In 1991, the Co-op bought 557 Carpenter Lane. After two years of major renovation — including digging out the basement, demolishing walls and relocating staircases — the new, improved Weavers Way opened in the combined 559/557. The Mt. Airy store is basically the same configuration today, albeit spiffed up in a 2012 renovation.
In 2002, Weavers Way purchased 608 and 610 Carpenter Lane with the intention of opening a prepared-foods takeout and sit-down café. These plans were dashed, and the Co-op nearly bankrupted, with the discovery of fraudulent bookkeeping practices that had masked the store's actual financial situation. Amid that crisis, Co-op fiscal practices were reformed, members paid a premium on purchases and staffers took pay cuts. By 2005, the Co-op was back on financially firm ground and was even able to purchase 555 Carpenter Lane, the old deli that was its original rented home. Mt. Airy's pet supply and wellness departments now occupy the renovated 608-610 Carpenter, now known as Weavers Way Across the Way, and 555 houses offices and meeting space.
The Weavers Way Board of Directors created the nonprofit Weavers Way Community Programs in 2007 as a means to expand its role in the community. Farm and healthy food programs for children are at the heart of efforts of the nonprofit, which was renamed Food Moxie in 2016 but still maintains its close relationship with the Co-op. Funding comes from a mix of foundation support, individual contributions and a small amount of income earned by its programs.
In 2008, in partnership with the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., Weavers Way took over a storefront at 72nd and Ogontz avenues to serve the Oak Lane area. The Ogontz store was not financially successful and Weavers Way gave it up in 2011.
The View from the Ground
Weavers Way Farms got their start as a memorial to Weavers Way founding generation member Mort Brooks. The Mort Brooks Memorial Farm at Awbury Arboretum was first operated by volunteers in 2000 and converted to commercial production in 2007 with the hiring of our first professional farmer.
The Henry Got Crops farm at W.B. Saul Agricultural High School was started in 2009 as a collaboration of Weavers Way Co-op, Food Moxie, W.B. Saul Agricultural High School and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. Saul students are involved with every aspect of the farm, from hands-on fieldwork to newsletter writing, applied research and summer internships.
In addition to supplying produce for the stores, Henry Got Crops has a subscription CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Since 2011, the seasonal Henry Got Crops Farm Market at the Saul farm has sold farm produce and other selected local and sustainable products to the public.
Beyond Mt. Airy
Through nearly four decades and multiple store configurations in the immediate area of Greene Street and Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy, the subject of moving or expanding the Co-op was regularly discussed at membership meetings, but no major changes of venue were approved. That finally changed in 2009, when the decision was made to expand to a second store. The old Caruso’s Market in Chestnut Hill became available, and was purchased that year. The Co-op raised nearly $700,000 in member loans in 2009 and 2010 to help fund the project, and Weavers Way Chestnut Hill opened its doors at 8424 Germantown Ave. on May 15, 2010.
The same year, members voted to make the work requirement optional and to open shopping completely to non-members.
In 2013, Weavers Way opened a dedicated health and wellness specialty store adjacent to the main Weavers Way store in Chestnut Hill. Next Door, in a rented space at 8426 Germantown Ave., brought the number of Weavers Way retail locations to four.
In 2016, the tenant vacated 542 Carpenter Lane, a former garage owned by the Co-op. The building was rebooted as a home-goods marketplace offering resources for sustainable living, fitted with a new roof and skylights, and reopened as Weavers Way Mercantile. The location also serves as a dynamic community space that hosts Weavers Way workshops, movie showings, Co-op meetings and other more impromptu neighborhood events.
Expansion, the Next Chapter
In 2012, the National Cooperative Grocers Association convened a weekend workshop at Weavers Way, inviting a dozen local co-ops, both established and aspirational, to talk about the pros and cons of growth. One takeaway: It's far easier to expand on an existing business than start a new one from scratch. By 2015, the Weavers Way Board had moved into a full-fledged search for a likely location to open a third Weavers Way store.
Meanwhile, a group of activists had been working since 2012 to open a cooperative grocery in Ambler, a borough of about 6,500 in Montgomery County. Ambler had been without a grocery store since 2009, when the local Acme closed; the opening of a Bottom Dollar store was hardly a relief — it shut down after a year.
At community events, farmers’ markets and countless house meetings, the Ambler Food Co-op (AFC) drummed up support and donations for the store they dreamed of. The Weavers Way Board took notice. AFC members, many of them also members of Weavers Way, made their case for the borough as a perfect location for a new co-op — dense, walkable, in need of a grocery store and home to a large and enthusiastic potential member base.
In Fall 2016, with the blessing of Ambler Borough Council, Weavers Way announced the new store would open in the abandoned Bottom Dollar location at 217 E. Butler Ave. With a member loan campaign bringing in $1.5 million, renovations began May 2017.
Large, modern and purpose-built to sell groceries, the building at 217 E. Butler Ave. is both perfect for Weavers Way and a perfect challenge for an organization well-versed in selling food out of old, cramped, make-do spaces. At 11,000 square feet, Ambler is bigger than the other stores combined, and has a loading dock. There's even ample parking.
The new store opened in October 2017.
Growing into the Future
Today, the Co-op is an anchor of the Mt. Airy neighborhood around Carpenter and Greene, a vibrant part of Chestnut Hill’s shopping district, and an eagerly awaited presence in Ambler, as well as a growing influence in the discussion on local products, urban agriculture and access to healthy food. Co-op membership has increased to more than 7,500 households, representing more than 15,000 people.