Virtual store tour of Swarthmore Co-op

By way of background, the Swarthmore Co-op was founded in 1937 by local residents in a garage  during the depression in search of less expensive and fresher food. The membership fee was $5 and that remained in effect until we undertook our new project. They moved to the old store,  which had 3,000 sq.ft. of retail space, in 1939 where it has serviced the community until October 12, 2004. The co-op has always been more of a full service community store where anyone can shop and anyone can join. Late in 1998,  2 separate and serendipitous things occurred. One was that the Co-op Board had a structural engineer do a study of the long term viability of our old building, and his conclusion was that it would take $1 to $1.5 million just to shore up the foundation and roof and still do nothing to improve the aging retail area. The Board started looking for a new location, but in our small village there was nothing that would work. At the same time the Borough was doing a business district strategic plan, and out of that they received federal and state grant money to do a streetscape project as well as funding to buy the property next to the co-op in order to put a street through to improve parking and traffic flow. The co-op saw this as the opportunity of a lifetime, so we went to the Borough and ask that we buy the adjacent property, build a brand new expanded store and then the Borough buy our property for the same price. They would then put the street in that location after the new store opened. The Borough saw that as the classic win-win solution and agreed to that plan. As the Board started looking at designs and construction estimates, we realized that we were taking on a $2 million project for a store that would double the retail space to over 6,000 sq.ft. Realizing that we needed to raise significant funds, we used Bill Gessner of CDS and worked with the National Cooperative Bank in order to come up with a plan. We raised the membership fee to $300 and went out with a member loan program, with the intent of revitalizing our cooperative values and having the shoppers view it as a long term investment in the community. They results were spectacular with over 720 members and 75 member loans that totaled over $640,000 which included $50,000 from Swarthmore College. With that "equity" we were able to get a construction loan from our local bank, First Federal, and the long term loan from NCB. On October 12, 2004 we closed the doors of the old store for good. Over 70 members helped move the stock into the new store and we opened on October 14. Over 200 members attended the ribbon cutting event and the store has been the biggest thing to happen in town in decades! While we have only been operation for 2 weeks, the members have been thrilled with the new space. Many have commented that they now no longer have to go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's or the local chains. Our sale have averaged an increase of over 50% without doing any advertising as of yet. It is interesting to note that our sales increased over 25% when we started the new member drive. We gave each new member a nice canvas bag that said "Swarthmore Co-op - I own the Place!" Next spring when the new street will be in the place of the old co-op and the streetscape project is complete for the entire business district, the town will be an entirely new and vibrant place with the new Co-op as the center piece! It's a great example of how positive things can happen when the entire community can focus on the same thing, and it seems a co-op by it's very nature is a great way to do this.
Photographer's Name: 
Heidi Culbertson
Date Photos Taken: 
Sun, 10/31/2004 - 18:00
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania