As I write this column, construction is winding down at our Ambler store. The target opening date is somewhere around Oct. 6, though that might change — this is our fourth target opening date — but in any case, we’re getting close. Good thing too, as by this point my fingernails will need all of 2018 to grow back.
I shouldn’t complain. The project has gone remarkably well, with delays and “change orders” (constructionspeak for cost overruns) that are, I’m told, fairly typical for a job of this scope.
So the paint’s dry, the equipment’s humming and the shelves are getting stocked. Plan on paying a visit soon.
The store is the manifestation of hard work by innumerable people, perhaps driven by different motives but all embracing the cooperative business model. As a result, Weavers Way Ambler represents the single biggest opportunity in the near term to grow the cooperative economy in the Philadelphia area.
Already, before the doors open, we can count over a thousand new members in and around Ambler, most joining in the last few months, many as part of our partnership with the former Ambler Food Co-op. Their patronage will keep millions of dollars in the local economy, stanching at least some of the economic leakage that comes with patronizing the big out-of-town corporate chains.
To accomplish this, our Ambler store will have to operate as a first-rate grocer, offering exceptional service, amazing food and good value.
Wait till you see it. The store looks grand, and it’s chock-full of amenities: ample parking, wide aisles, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, a café seating area and lots and lots of space, which will allow us to offer a larger selection of products than we can fit in our other stores.
The store’s size has raised an important question. The small scale of our Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill stores creates a sense of intimacy, friends and neighbors rubbing shoulders – often bumping shoulders – and in so doing, elevating the chore of going to store to a higher purpose: grocery shopping as civil engagement.
But can the same intimacy be produced in a store of 10,000 square feet?
Absolutely. Go to City Market in Burlington, VT, or River Valley in Northampton, MA, or Weaver Street in Carrboro, NC, or dozens of other co-op groceries around the country.
These stores are as big as Weavers Way Ambler, or bigger, but the comradery of their member-owners is easily felt by an observant visitor.
Weavers Way Ambler is our store. We need take ownership of it, embrace it and make it an extension of ourselves. It has to be more than just a place to buy groceries. It has to be our “Third Place.”
Over the last few years, my colleagues on staff and I have talked a lot about the social concept of Third Place. I wrote a Shuttle column about it a while back. The idea, in a nutshell, goes like this: If your First Place is where you live, and your Second Place is where you work or go to school, your Third Place is where you go for community connection.
A Third Place can be a coffee shop, hair salon, pool hall, really anwhere a person can go and feel the pulse of their community. Communities that lack Third Places aren’t really communities at all.
Our Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill stores are successful not just because we sell a lot of groceries out of them – which we do – but because they serve as Third Places. And for the Ambler store to succeed, it will have to do the same thing.
For me, the store’s café offers the best opportunity for this. At the heart of the café is a long communal table, which I believe will become the heart of the store. This is where we’ll gather, together, as a cooperative community. When I’m in Ambler, that’s where you’ll find me.
We expect to have a significant Working Member presence in Ambler, one that is integral to the store’s culture. Familiar cooperator shifts like packing cookies, stocking shelves and wrapping cheese will all be there, as will new ones like collecting shopping carts and maintaining the café.
We’ll also have plenty of committee work for members and a whole series of workshops to help bring us all together. In short, Weavers Way Ambler will have an abundance of opportunities for members to engage in the cooperative experience, to make the Ambler store their Third Place.
Our hard work is by no means over. To succeed, we will rely on you, as a cooperatively owned enterprise must, our members, specifically our Ambler-area members, to rethink shopping patterns and get into your store, to actively participate in the life of the Co-opinn and to serve as our cooperative vanguard, spreading the word about Weavers Way to your neighbors.
So at last, the next step begins. Time to sell some groceries.
See you around the Co-op.