Valley Bounty: Community has kept Leverett Co-op beacon burning for half-century

Abel Reagan, 4, Etta Reagan, 2, and their mother Samantha Spisiak shop at the Leverett Village Co-Op for after noon snacks Tuesday afternoon, December 19, 2023.

Abel Reagan, 4, Etta Reagan, 2, and their mother Samantha Spisiak shop at the Leverett Village Co-Op for after noon snacks Tuesday afternoon, December 19, 2023. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Baked goods made at the Franklin Community Co-Op sold at Leverett Village Co-Op after a recent partnership on some of the fresh kitchen items.

Baked goods made at the Franklin Community Co-Op sold at Leverett Village Co-Op after a recent partnership on some of the fresh kitchen items. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Roger Zimmerman, a volunteer a the Leverett Village Co-Op stocks shelves. In front of him are baskets which are part of a silent action fund raiser for the Co-Op.

Roger Zimmerman, a volunteer a the Leverett Village Co-Op stocks shelves. In front of him are baskets which are part of a silent action fund raiser for the Co-Op. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

The Leverett Village Co-Op .

The Leverett Village Co-Op . STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Liz Etheridge, a volunteer at the Leverett Village Co-op, stocks shelves with a recent delivery of food items.

Liz Etheridge, a volunteer at the Leverett Village Co-op, stocks shelves with a recent delivery of food items. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Donna Zimmerman , a volunteer at the Leverett Village Co-Op, checks a recent delivery.

Donna Zimmerman , a volunteer at the Leverett Village Co-Op, checks a recent delivery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kari Ridge, the buyer at the Leverett Village Co-Op stocks shelves after a recent delivery of food items.

Kari Ridge, the buyer at the Leverett Village Co-Op stocks shelves after a recent delivery of food items. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Etta Reagan, 2, Abel Reagan, 4, and their mother, Samantha Spisiak, shop at the Leverett Village Co-op on Dec. 19.

Etta Reagan, 2, Abel Reagan, 4, and their mother, Samantha Spisiak, shop at the Leverett Village Co-op on Dec. 19. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Guy Fiero, a volunteer a the Leverett Village Co-Op, signs up a new member with Kari Ridge, the buyer for the Co-Op.

Guy Fiero, a volunteer a the Leverett Village Co-Op, signs up a new member with Kari Ridge, the buyer for the Co-Op. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 01-11-2024 11:11 AM

This year, the Leverett Village Co-op turns 50. Over half a century, it has grown beyond a grocery store to become a cultural institution and hidden gem on North Leverett Road. For many it is an indispensable source of food to eat and food for the soul, and they don’t want to imagine life without it.

“Leverett Village Co-op is a member-owned co-op that serves many purposes,” says general manager Ken Washburn. “We are a grocery store, but also a coffee shop, a music venue, and a place where friends or groups can meet.”

Back in 1974, the co-op began as a bulk food buying club. Each week, members placed a combined food order with a wholesale distributor in Boston that was connected to regional farms and other suppliers. Delivery was made to Franklin County, and the order split among members.

In the 1980s, the co-op moved into its first retail space in The Mall at Moore’s Corner, a diminutive building just down the street from the present-day co-op. A few years later the current building was built. Soon a bakery was added, and not long after a cafe and meeting space.

As a grocery store, “we focus on natural and local food while also trying to meet everyone’s wants and needs,” Washburn says. “We have Cheez-Its. We have ice cream. It’s not strictly a tofu and sprouts situation.”

Even in the winter, food of all kinds from local farms and businesses graces the co-op selves. Apples from Apex Orchards in Shelburne are still available. Fridges hold Diemand Farm poultry, Sidehill Farm yogurt, Mapleline Farm milk, ferments from Real Pickles, and eggs and ice cream from local businesses.

Maple syrup from Kingsbury Farm in Deerfield and honey from Shelburne Honey Co. offer some local sweetness. Bread and pastries from Berkshire Mountain Bakery are customer favorites. Katalyst Kombucha, bottled in Greenfield, as well as locally crafted beer from Berkshire Brewing and Progression Brewing, can be found in the beverage case.

In the prepared foods section,the co-op now carries some of the most popular dishes made by the nearby Franklin Community Co-op grocery store in Greenfield.

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“That’s brand new and very exciting,” Washburn says. “It was our buyer Kari Ridge’s idea to reach out to them — she and I co-manage most of our operations. The variety and quality of the food is fabulous, and the customer response has been amazing. And the idea of co-ops in Franklin County can support each other is incredible — we want to do more of that.”

The sunlit cafe remains the social heart of the co-op, with coffee, tea, hot soup and baked goods always close at hand. Local art hangs on the walls. Many evenings the space comes alive as events pull people in from surrounding towns, including live music and a weekly pizza night on Fridays.

“And this is something I really want people to know about,” says Washburn. “Not only do we have beer and wine for sale, we also have a pouring license. Whether it’s just you or you’re hosting a meeting or event, we can serve beer and wine by the glass.”

The co-op’s beer and wine selection is diverse for its size. Washburn, a professionally trained sommelier, curates it, and also contributes to a regular wine tasting segment on New England Public Media’s “Fabulous 413” radio show hosted by Monte Belmonte and Kaliis Smith.

“That’s been really fun, and we’ve had people come ask for wines they heard about on the radio, which I love,” Washburn says.

That public attention is good, especially for a business that simply doesn’t have as much opportunity for customer traffic as other grocery stores. “There’s not a ton of people who come through North Leverett unless you already live there,” Washburn acknowledges, “the exception being Lake Wyola in Shutesbury in the summer.”

The co-op has capitalized on seasonal visitors, scooping ice cream and enjoying higher sales that tide them over the slower months. Last year’s disastrously wet summer challenged that formula, as rain deterred lake visitors and a major washout caused road closures and re-routed traffic. Inflation didn’t help, increasing costs for them and many local food businesses even as corporate profits reached new heights.

Still, there’s a reason the Leverett Village Co-op is able to celebrate 50 years running. At its core, it’s a creation by and for the community it serves. The many committed members, volunteers, supporters and shoppers crave the bright spot the co-op brings to this neighborhood. That enthusiasm keeps them running, and there’s no indication of it fading.

“Right now, there is so much energy and momentum,” says Washburn. “I love working alongside our wonderful volunteers, and their numbers have doubled. We have re-energized membership and fundraising committees. We’re trying new things to mobilize our customer base, and things seem to be going well.”

Just last month, the co-op exceeded its $15,000 fundraising goal, unlocking another $15,000 from matching donors. Meanwhile, attendance at co-op events is growing. A Fall Festival last October drew more than 300 people and challenged the neighborhood’s parking capacity. Following that, a holiday fair in December featuring local artists, craft activities, and a book signing with a local author drew another lively crowd.

To mark the co-op’s 50th anniversary, plans are in the works for a pop-up dinner and celebration later this winter. The date and details are still forthcoming but will be shared on their Facebook page, which people can also follow for regular news and product updates.

“Our 50th year also coincides with the town of Leverett’s 250th anniversary celebration,” Washburn notes, “so it feels like this will be a year of celebration and reflection in multiple ways.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about where you can find local food in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org.