A Page from History: Ocean Beach’s little co-op that could
It happened on Voltaire Street.
In the early decades of the community, Ocean Beach “boosters” touted Voltaire Street as an “avenue of opportunity” and Ocean Beach as the little town with two business districts.
And didn’t most of the folks who came out to OB in those days take the old street car down Voltaire Street to Wonderland Station? They sure did. And isn’t Voltaire the only “author street” that runs all the way to the beach? In fact, it is.
This is a uniquely OB-centric story, and moreover, every one of the events we are going to consider here happened right on Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach.
The seven “international cooperative principles” are painted boldly on the walls above the market hall, the main shopping floor of Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market. Natural daylight floods the room from skylights and banks of dual-glazed low-E glass windows on the north and east sides of People’s beautiful, award-winning “green” new building. OK, the place is not brand new. In fact, the building will soon have its 20th anniversary. But for our purposes, we will refer to the present home of San Diego’s only grocery co-op as the “new” building. We bring up the lighting as a visual way to reference the progress that People’s has made over the past 50 years.
People’s previous home for almost three decades was a dark, if well-loved, little store that occupied part of People’s present parking lot. How dark was it? The lighting was so dim that the place might well have made an excellent pool hall. Which, of course, it had been. You knew that.
But we’ve already jumped ahead a bit too far, so let’s set the Way-Back Machine for 1971.
That was so long ago that some of us were still in high school, and while it was technically not the ‘60s anymore, it was close.
“We were really a victim of our own success,” Dennis Doyle said recently with a laugh, recalling the weekly line of cars that clogged the alley south of Voltaire behind the OB Free School. The former community activist turned school superintendent and now semiretired consultant was one of the Free School’s founders and a resident of Voltaire, a few doors west of the firehouse. The Free School allowed its backyard to be used as a pickup and drop-off center for an OB neighborhood buying club known informally as STP, for Serve the People.
The group had no one leader but shared a philosophy embracing social change. Part of that ethos combined support for fair labor practices and the United Farm Workers with the rejection of rampant consumerism as embodied by corporate retail supermarkets. The group took orders from members and haggled with the wholesale produce vendors downtown.
To find the best produce and best prices, they drove their pickups and station wagons to Escondido, Ramona and Julian to buy apples, nuts, eggs and honey directly from the sources. The group bought organic if and when possible and, in the backyard of the Free School, members brought their own boxes and weighed their own produce. Their motto: “Food for People, Not for Profit.”
The enterprise proved quite popular and the group began to look for a more permanent home, a storefront perhaps. Meanwhile, the founders of the OB People’s Store, an arts and crafts shop in a cottage in the 4700 block of Voltaire, found themselves short on inventory. So it was that the OB People’s Store became OB People’s Food Store in 1972.
People’s Food operated as a workers collective, with a few managers and plenty of volunteers.
“Some members worked for food credit,” Doyle recalled. “If you were a member, the door was open 24/7. The member took the food he or she needed and recorded it on the ledger. There was always a free box of non-food items on the porch — baby clothes, etc. — and there was also a voluntary 1 percent tax called a sustaining fund, which was used to get quite a few other projects started in the community.”
A little more than a year later, People’s Food was outgrowing its rustic digs. As serendipity would have it, a commercial building just up the street became available at 4765 Voltaire. The former home of Ye Billiard Den seemed to be just what the naturopath ordered. The old billiard parlor will now be referred to as the “old” building.
Jamie Decker, People’s Organic Food Market’s financial manager and secretary of the board of directors, spoke to us on the 25th anniversary of her employment with People’s. She worked in the old building, which she remembered being “really crowded ... and really small, and very cozy.”
“It was great, I loved it!” she said.
The happy, cozy, dark little store thrived, and in 1985, People’s reorganized as a consumer-owned cooperative under the California Consumer Cooperative Corporation Law. Under such a structure, the members are owners and, significantly for People’s, the co-op was soon able to buy the old building. New motto: “Everyone can Shop, Anyone can Join.”
In 2001, People’s began construction on its new, sustainable, “green” building. A collaboration among co-op members, staff and the Ocean Beach firm Architects HGW (Hanna Gabriel Wells) resulted in the unique and multi-award-winning building that People’s now calls home. No old-growth wood was used in the construction. Recycled content steel, engineered lumber and non-toxic, recycled and sustainably harvested building materials were used almost exclusively. Energy-efficient photovoltaic cells on the co-op roof supply a portion of the building’s electrical needs. Skylights and windows have been placed to maximize natural cross ventilation, rendering air conditioning unnecessary.
People’s staff enjoyed watching as the new building went up in the parking lot west of the store and were equally fascinated to see their old home razed. Just about every scrap from the old store that could be was reused, repurposed or recycled. For example, stained glass from the windows around the front door of the old pool hall was salvaged and fabricated into frames that now hang in the windows of the new building’s community room.
“The whole project took approximately 2½ years,” Decker said. “It was completed on time and within budget!”
The co-op was closed for only two days, over a weekend, as fixtures and inventory were moved into the new building.
People’s Food is San Diego’s only customer-owned grocery store. It also is OB’s largest employer, with close to 100 people.
“An owner-member makes a $15 investment annually,” Decker said. “A board of directors is elected by the membership on a democratic basis — one member, one vote. The shelf prices listed are the owner-member prices. Non-members are welcome but pay a 10 percent surcharge.”
We thought the member investment of 15 bones sounded like what it was years ago. Decker confirmed that our suspicions were correct. OB People’s has more than 11,000 members.
People’s Food belongs to the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which is similar to a trade organization and functions as a virtual chain, according to Decker.
While OB People’s is one of the smaller member co-ops, it often has been one of the larger members in terms of sales and membership. In the association, People’s was known as “The Little Co-op that Could.”
“And we still can,” Decker said. “Be sure to say that, OK?”
Eric DuVall is president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society (obhistory.org). Basic membership in the Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is $15 annually, tax-deductible.