Great Small Shops #2: Hampden Park Co-op

[This is where they shot a scene of the film Wilson.]
This summer, while covering the opening of Seward Co-op’s “friendship store” on Minneapolis' 38th Street, I started learning about the Twin Cities’ co-op history, reading through Craig Cox’s neat book on the (so-called) “co-op wars.”

Here’s one of the things Cox told me this summer about the history of how co-ops have changed:
You have to understand that back in the 70s it didn’t cost hardly anything to open a co-op. There was all sorts of retail space open in the city, it was very inexpensive because a lot of mom and pop groceries had been going out of business

You could get all the stuff you needed, like coolers, freezers, shelving, scales. They were very easily available and very cheap, so it didn't take a lot of money to organize a co-op back then. And you really didn’t have to have a huge consensus in the neighborhood. To get one going. You just needed pretty motivated people to do volunteer work and to pull it all together.

There's an interesting observation there about access to space, the re-use of old buildings, and how retail works. But if you want to see this relationship in action, playing out before you, just go down to Hampden Park and check out the co-op grocery that has stayed closest to its communitarian grassroots. Not coincidentally, it’s also the last old-school retail business in the Hampden Park neighborhood, which was once lined with the kind of “mom and pop shops” that Cox describes as disappearing in the 60s and 70s.

[There used to be lots of shops here, c. 1900.]
The area, South Saint Anthony Park, has always been the grubby younger brother to the tonier (regular) Saint Anthony Park neighborhood over the tracks to the North. It’s always been more of a mix of industry and residential, with not-quite as fancy homes, a bit closer to the working class.

And today shopping at the Hampden Park Co-op is an experience you can rarely find any more. Actual people are making actual decisions, right in front of you, about what to display. If you want to suggest a product, you simply begin a conversation about it. This place feels like the old co-ops I used to go to over ten years ago, back when Mississippi Market was still on Randolph and the North Country Co-op still existed.  

(It’s not too intimate though. You’re welcome to ignore everyone if you like.)

[Fiddle, guitar, cheese, kombucxha.]
On Saturdays old-time folk musicians, usually a fiddle and guitar, play tunes over in the corner between the cooler and the soup. More than once I’ve recognized the fiddler Mary DuShane, who has been playing near this park for twenty years, back when the space upstairs in the two-store brick building was called the “Oddfellows Hall” and hosted square dances on weekend evenings. The hall's vast wood floor was perfect for the dancing. If you got overheated in wintertime, you had only to go down the long wide staircase and out onto the street to cool down, watching the moon over the trees in the park.

Today, the upstairs neighbors are an aikido school, and it’s a bit hilarious to be shopping at the co-op when class is in session. The ceiling almost moves with each thudding body, but you get used to the repetitive thumps after the first dozen or two.

[Nuts, bread, fruit.]
Produce is all labeled with origin, and I think local sourcing is a value there. The soup is freshly made each morning. They have a wide selection in a small space, and it’s done about as well as you can expect this side of a New York City corner store (the gold standard for retail density and diversity).

But maybe this is exactly the right analogy. Just like a New York City corner store, the Hampden Park Co-op is the perfect size, and once you figure out the layout, you can always know exactly where you are and where you’re going. It’s the exact opposite of the disorientation that’s become a feature (not a bug) of the big box experience.

And just like a good New York deli, you might be interrupting an interesting conversation between workers while you shop there. You might end up chiming in about road construction, the weather, which is the best bread, or whether you’ve ever been to China. It’s socially accessible without being forced.

Maybe one reason for that everyday informality is that this is the last co-op in the region where you still can work volunteer hours in exchange for your membership discount; the sign-up sheet is hanging on the foyer wall. It means that any given worker might be a employee or simply another member/shopper, and the lack of that distinction breaks down the usual entitlement that comes with modern American consumerism.

Hampden Park Co-op is a great small shop. Go buy stuff there. Get a sandwich and eat at the picnic table outside, or take a walk in the park. It’s only a pleasant five minute stroll from the Green Line. I guarantee you won’t be the only one walking around.

[The volunteer board.]

[Just people.]

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