Longform

THE BULK STOPS HEREBUMMED-OUT CO-OPERS FEEL THEY'RE BEING MUSCLED OUT AS GENTLE STRENGTH GETS DOWN TO BUSINESS

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"The shit is really going to hit the fan," forecast one longtime member upon learning of the June 25 confab at ASU's Memorial Union. "It's going to be organic and very colonically cleansed shit. But it's going to hit the ol' fan, just the same."

As predicted, the winds of change wafting through the upstairs meeting room at ASU Memorial Union were decidedly foul.

Facts, numbers and market trends appear to mean little to the impassioned throng grousing among themselves as they leaf through a nine-page agenda not of their own design. Operating on emotion, frustration and abject distrust for anyone sitting on a dais (a position of "empowerment," anathema to co-op principles), the 100-odd owner-members suspiciously eye the handful of committee members comparing notes onstage.

The meeting hasn't been under way ten minutes when the first volley of dissent is fired.

As the onstage speaker attempts to make a point using some overly simplistic visual aids (the outline of a human body represents the co-op, with red blood droplets representing the discounts "bleeding it" to death), he's interrupted by a dark-haired woman in a peasant dress.

"Liar!" she hisses defiantly. "This is propaganda, not information!"
From around the room, a rumble.
Though taken aback, the speaker ignores the hubbub and forges ahead with his overhead projector presentation. Using colored markers to sketch the nonmember "blood transfusion" said to be keeping the co-op alive, he drones on in the condescending tone of voice one might reserve for a group of dimwitted children.

"Yes, teacher!" wisecracks someone in the crowd, triggering mass snickering and another outburst from the dark-haired woman.

"I am deeply insulted to be portrayed to the membership as `bleeding the co-op'!" she lashes out. "You are devaluing us as human beings! My contribution is valuable and worthwhile!"

Like villagers storming the Bastille, her comrades egg her on with an enthusiastic round of applause. Several people shout, "Hear! Hear!"

From the dais comes a plaintive, "I can't share when people are talking to me like that."

Feeling their oats, others join the vocal fray. Although a small group of members thinks the committee's ideas are worth listening to, the cooler heads are quickly outshouted by their more radical colleagues. What follows quickly degenerates into a free-for-all worthy of the Ricki Lake show, a high-decibel debacle that, ultimately, has less to do with the future welfare of the co-op than it does with the respective lung power of all involved.

At one point, the proceedings come to a dead halt as two members holler at one another, while three or four other well-meaning members loudly try to restore order. Adding to the confusion is the one-woman Greek chorus near the front of the room, a grandmotherly type who interjects her own running commentary on the chaos. ("Thank you, Lucy. That needed to be said.")

A natural foods salesman attempts to put the co-op's problems in perspective by describing industry trends, but he's cut off in midsentence as angry members stage an impromptu debate about whether they even want to listen to him. Deciding that they do, there is yet another debate as they argue exactly how long they should listen to him.

As soon as he resumes speaking, he's drowned out by someone yelling from the back of the room. Reaching the breaking point, a distraught woman announces that she's going to burst out crying if people don't stop screaming at one another.

A young woman tells the group that she quit her job because she could no longer work for an organization that did not respect her right to wear a nose ring.

Four long hours later--by which time the group has reconfigured all the chairs into a giant circle and the real purpose of the meeting has been abandoned in favor of "sharing" personal concerns about Gentle Strength--even the co-op's staunchest supporters have a hard time arguing with one longtime member's shrewd take on the organization. Knowing laughter fills the room when he refers to the store, only half-jokingly, as "The Harvard Case Study in How Not to Run a Business."

The business that's somehow succeeded in spite of itself began life in 1972 as a tiny storefront operation at 32 East Fifth Street, Tempe, a onetime plumber's shop recalled with varying degrees of charity as "a hole in the wall," "a hippie den" and "a cockroach pit." A far cry from the store's current streamlined incarnation, the funky alternative to mainstream supermarkets quickly found favor with the Valley's counterculture consumers.

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Dewey Webb