2020 marked our 5th Anniversary! The Durham Co-op Market opened for business in March of 2015, and it has been a rewarding five years of serving the public as Durham’s community-owned grocery store. Like most cooperatives, the Durham Co-op began as an idea and became real through a lot of work and the support of our community.

Reaching this milestone seemed like an opportune time to document the Co-op’s history. Throughout an unprecedented year, we’ve welcomed the opportunity to reflect on the positive impact the Co-op brings to Durham through community, fun, good food, and more.

Our Story: Creating a New Kind of Neighborhood Co-op

The Durham Co-op Market was founded in 2007 and opened its doors on West Chapel Hill St. in March 2015, with the mission of creating a neighborhood co-op grocery store where Everyone is Welcome.
But the journey to where we are now started long before 2007, and it’s not just the story of the Durham Co-op Market. It’s a uniquely Durham story that spans several decades of our city’s history and the larger, national “co-op movement.” It is a story of victories and losses about what it means (and doesn’t mean) to create an inclusive co-op grocery store that meets the needs of a diverse community. It’s a story that deserves to be told in many voices, by our community who has been with us every step of the way.
This is an oral history of the Co-op, told by a few of the many key contributors to the Co-op story, weaving together many perspectives into one dynamic whole, just like the Co-op itself. These interviews were conducted over several weeks in 2020, in celebration of the Co-op’s fifth anniversary.

The Rise & Fall of the “People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy”: 1971-2009

From Leila Wolfrum, General Manager (2014-2022):
In the deep history of time (the 1970s), the first Durham Food Co-op opened, aimed at creating access to natural and organic food, which at that time were not available in mainstream grocery stores. It moved around to a few different locations, and the third of those locations was on West Chapel Hill Street, where The Cookery is now. The neighborhood around it was very much as it is today, tremendously diverse, both economically and racially, with lots of people from lots of different backgrounds. The Co-op itself was not really focused on serving all the needs of the people who lived nearby. There was a disconnect between what the Co-op was doing, and the people who were running it, and the neighbors themselves; and the co-op struggled to survive. As this first Co-op was ending, a group of people got together and said “We want a co-op, but we need a different kind of co-op than this.”

From Alisa Johnson, Former Board Member, on the first Durham Co-op:
If you’ve heard about the history of the co-op when it was on Broad Street, you know it was [called] the People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy. And there are a whole group of people who remember the Co-op from that era and have that connection. It was a little bit bracing to move from that location to West Chapel Hill Street, and not all the membership was in agreement about it. There are people who love the [first] Co-op and other people who have really mixed feelings about it. I was a long term member of the Co-op, but for lots of different reasons I stopped shopping at the Chapel Hill Street store. The things that I would hear about the interaction with Co-op members and members of the neighborhood, particularly people of color, wasn’t necessarily encouraging. That’s not to say that there weren’t people of color working at the Co-op or there wasn’t diversity at the Co-op. There absolutely was. But I think the things that I heard most about were around issues of ideology, like why there weren’t more recognizable commercial things that the people in the surrounding neighborhood would be interested in purchasing. The Co-op did not do a good job of explaining that to people. So there was very, very low community participation over time in the Co-op. The Co-op struggled financially the entire time it was in that location before it closed. I think that whole experience really left a bad taste for some reason. So therefore, it was really important that a new co-op be very different.

A New Vision, and a Big Problem: 2006 – 2011

From Leila Wolfrum, General Manager:
In 2007, a group put together a founding board for a new Durham Co-op. They got a few initial members, and after about a year, they found a site right downtown on Mangum Street. They called the new idea Durham Central Market. They hired a really terrific project manager, Don Moffit, and they started collecting members and money to build a big store. This store was supposed to be bigger and cleaner and more exciting than the old Durham Food Co-op. They sort of got some momentum going, and then 2008 happened, and all of the possibilities for funding completely dried up. It looked for a few years like it just was not going to be possible – they couldn’t put the financing together to get anything open.

From Drew Peng, Founding Board Member:
The vision originally was to raise $4 million to fund both the build out and the building itself, which most co-ops don’t do. I think even at the time it was pretty ambitious. Certainly after the Great Recession, that was pretty much a non-starter to actually raise that amount of money.

From Leila Wolfrum, General Manager:
After it became clear that Mangum Street wasn’t going to happen, things looked pretty bleak. But there were some amazing people who just kept hanging on to the dream.

From Don Moffitt, Project Manager:
The board kept doing community engagement – booths at the farmers market, special events – people would get their neighbors to come to a meeting at their house and other board members would come and talk about the Co-op and why join.

Return of The Co-op: 2012 – 2015

From Leila Wolfrum, General Manager:
Just when it seemed like it was really never going to happen, in 2012, Self-Help approached the
Co-op. They had bought the property on West Chapel Hill Street and they were going to build an office building and wanted a retail space next door. The board was really conflicted, because it was literally one block away from where the first Co-op used to be, and the board was really split between people who said this is a terrible idea and it’s not going to work, and people who said this is literally our only chance to get this thing open – nobody else is offering us the possibility of getting it open.

From Don Moffitt, Project Manager:
One of the reasons the board thought the first Co-op didn’t thrive was because of its location, and some felt strongly that it needed to relocate to the farmers market area. So when Self-Help said they had an idea for a site and it was a block away from the original Co-op, I was like, no, dude, that’s not going to happen. But eventually, the real estate committee got excited and the board got excited and it was off to the races.

From Drew Peng, Former Board President, on choosing the site:
Certainly there was a lot of discussion around should we put a
Co-op basically in the same neighborhood where the prior one failed. For me, looking at the numbers, it just looked like kind of a miracle that somebody would be willing to come in and build a building for us.

From Leila Wolfrum, General Manager:
Once the board decided to move ahead with that site, having a location named really jump started the fundraising process again, and they raised almost a million dollars to get the thing open.

From Drew Peng, Former Board President, on grassroots fundraising:
In terms of fundraising, having Self-Help as a financial partner and landlord helped a lot. But it’s still a struggle to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was a grassroots, all hands on-deck effort to tackle. I mean, we relied on stuff like our living room gatherings with Frank Stasio, and phone banks with board member volunteers. We held a number of fundraising events at local farms and restaurants – we’d just set up tables out there talking about the concept. Whether we were doing it one person at a time, in a living room with 15 people at a time or 50 at an event, we were just trying to show up. That was the best part of it – tapping into that passion that people had for a concept, a concept of community, food, sustainability, all the things that we stand for.

From Leila Wolfrum, General Manager:
The result of the debate about the neighborhood was that they figured out that they needed to really engage with people who lived around the site. They started attending community meetings, finding out where people were talking to each other and getting involved. Basically, through that process, they figured out that it really wasn’t the neighborhood that was the issue, it was the Co-op that had been the issue – that opening a store that didn’t explicitly make serving the surrounding community part of its mission was not a great way to make the surrounding community invest in the success of the store. That was really when “Everyone Welcome” found its way into the DNA of the Co-op that we built.

From Alisa Johnson, Board Member, on community involvement:
I was on the board of the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life project. I was the chair. We’ve been working together on a number of projects for many years, primarily affordable housing and issues of quality of life in the six neighborhoods in Southwest Central Durham. We were an established organization, and our neighborhoods are all in the close vicinity to the Co-op.
We were delighted when the properties on West Chapel Hill Street were purchased [by Self Help] and a number of our neighbors did work with zoning to make that happen. Once the properties were in development, Frank Stasio approached QOL with an idea because he was concerned about making sure that there was community involvement. I should back up and say that there’s a little bit of background about why that was a concern for the new Co-op.

When we – being neighborhood association members – were looking at that space, we identified a number of things, and a grocery store was one of them. But a co-op was not necessarily on our list. That’s because there had been a co-op there before and the response had been mixed. When Frank approached our organization, his idea was that in order to cement the relationship, someone from our organization, the chair, would sit on the Co-op board, and someone from the Co-op board would sit on our organization. He sat on the QOL board and I sat on the Co-op board. And the goal was to just make sure that there would be ongoing communication from the development phase to opening and then beyond. That’s the relationship that we established and it turned out to be a really good idea.

One concern at the time that was repeated to me was that the Co-op needed to be inclusive. Whatever had to happen in order to make it an open, more welcoming space needed to happen. I did have people asking me, and I was very happy to be able to tell them, it’s going to be a Co-op store and you can buy a membership, but anybody at any time can go in and shop. There will be things that you can recognize and certain things that will be expensive. It will never be as cheap as a Food Lion. But there are reasons for that, and when you find out what the reasons are, you’ll be really appreciative and you’ll understand. And then you’ll see that you can go into the store and there’ll be brands that are competitively priced and you can leave there without having spent a fortune. It’s going to cost less than Whole Foods and you’ll feel better about what you buy.

I was interested in the Co-op, but my focus was on Kent Corner. We (QOL) were not so much interested in one property as transforming the whole street. That was the big focus that we had had for a really, really long time.

I’m really, really glad that I got to be involved with the Co-op because it’s wonderful and it’s added so much to the neighborhood. It’s been exactly what we wanted it to be in terms of a community space. Part of our vision for West Chapel Hill St. was that it would be revitalized so that people would want to walk to the things there. This is exactly what has happened. It is such a different street than it was 25 or 30 years ago. And we’re all really, really happy that the change happened.

One of the things that we – we being residents in southwest Central Durham – have always taken pride in is that we have been able to come together, organize, and get things done. We got a lot of affordable housing developed. We got the senior living facility on Maplewood, and we’ve done that just by working together as a community. We do have a strong history of that. But I will tell you that West Corner succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. None of us could have envisioned just how well things would turn out. And so that is really, really, really wonderful.

Where will we go next?

You make the DCM what we are. You ARE the Co-op! You help us thrive with your perspective, input, and accountability. Your participation helps guide the Co-op’s future and influence. We wouldn’t be here without our owners. and you are key to the Co-op’s success!