With hard work, prospects brighten for Leverett Village Co-op

  • The Leverett Village Co-op with signs around the store asking members for support in October 2019.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Stacey LaPointe waits on Abigail Whittier at the Village Co-op in Leverett in October 2019.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2020 10:37:27 PM

LEVERETT — Its shelves were bare, save for some diet soda and beer, its staff had been laid off, board members resigned and its manager departed.

Just a few weeks ago, the future of the Leverett Village Co-op on Rattlesnake Gutter Road, following a vote in October that set a course for its possible dissolution, was in doubt.

But as the month of February comes to an end, several members have growing confidence that the worst is behind them as they help to bring the Moore’s Corner institution back from the brink and once again make it a destination to pick up a loaf of bread, a jar of spaghetti sauce, a bottle of wine — or enjoy an omelet for breakfast or a sandwich for lunch.

“We have noticed people who had stopped coming are coming again,” said Karen Traub, a member from Shutesbury and clerk to the co-op’s board. “The community has been incredible. People are calling to find out what they can do to help.”

Following a Feb. 5 board meeting, those trying to pull the co-op out of its financial crisis, where it has been nearly $200,000 in debt, went on what they termed a two-week hiatus to get new board members in place and determine how to return the co-op to being a place welcoming to all shoppers, and a gathering place for people to meet each other.

Traub is among those who have been volunteering to staff the register and stock the shelves daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and make pizza on Friday nights from 5 to 8 p.m.

Julio Mendez of Shutesbury, the new president of the board, said he has been shopping at the co-op for three years and has been a member for the past two years.

“Experiences are memorable enough that it’s worth fighting for,” Mendez said.

During the hiatus, the board created five committees focused on fundraising, volunteering, improving the building and facilities, creating a business plan and doing outreach.

Mendez acknowledged the work has not been easy, as many vendors are owed money. But the co-op has been able to pay off $16,000 in immediate debt. In addition, the co-op received a $25,000 personal loan from Samuel Lovejoy of Montague and a $20,000 donation challenge that, once met, led to another $5,000.

“The infusion of $50,000 into a business that had no money whatsoever has gone a long way to get past the initial steps to move forward and to keep the doors open,” Mendez said.

The board will soon have to make management decisions to make sure it is not returning to a troubling position.

“We will change it in a way to meet the needs of current patrons and those who have never come here,” Mendez said. “We have an outpouring of community support right now that comes from the fact they don’t want this to disappear.”

The co-op has also benefited from the aid of Paul Rosenberg, the former general manager who retired 18 months ago. He has appealed to a number of vendors to bring them back on board, Traub said.

In fact, the shelves and coolers filled with eggs, yogurt, milk, toilet paper, and other basic necessities are the result of his efforts. “Having Paul back is fundamental to keeping us afloat,” Traub said.

Support has also come from local enterprises that Traub said don’t want to see the co-op fail, including Maple Mama sodas in Wendell and Real Pickles in Greenfield.

Mendez notes that Thursday morning he met with Joshua Kingsbury, from Kingsbury Farms in Deerfield, to make sure that maple syrup is back in stock.

In addition to the store, the Cafe Rattle & Schmooze serves breakfast and lunch cooked to order.

Kathleen Leonard, the cook and caretaker of the kitchen for the Cafe Rattle & Schmooze, said she is doing her part to revitalize it with homemade soups and chowders, cakes, cookies and scones, and sandwiches.

“I’m upbeat again. With a lot of volunteers, it feels like new energy here,” Leonard said.

Ann Ferguson, a past president of the board, said the board tried a new model because of declining revenue, but she said that it may have gone in too upscale a direction and was unable to secure a needed bank loan for the improvements it planned.

Retreating from that, Ferguson, who lives in North Leverett, said the new board understands the need to go more slowly and get the community re-involved.

“They need to pay down the debt and grow more cautiously, and include all members,” Ferguson said.

Traub said one of the priorities is to bring back staff, with some already being able to return on a halftime basis.

“They are beloved by shoppers, we know it’s their livelihood, and we’re trying to give them some stability and appreciation,” Traub said.

If the co-op can get through the rest of winter, Traub said, she is confident that it will be ready for the busy seasons of spring, summer, and fall when hikers and bikers return to the nearby Rattlesnake Gutter, visitors head to the Peace Pagoda and swimmers make their way to Lake Wyola.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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