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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Coping With Consumer Shortage

WASHINGTON–In the midst of an economy plagued by monopolies, cartels, zooming prices and shortages, no one in Washington is asking what will happen if there starts to be a consumer shortage. They say it can’t happen here, not in the good old USA. Why American consumers will keep buying and buying lust to relieve their nervous tension like some people smoke cigarettes.

It is true that consumers will pay more for less up to a point-‑for gasoline, bread, meat. But there is a breaking point to their patience and passivity. Consumers begin to ask themselves whether they can do with less, can be more thrifty and reduce waste, can develop other habits or find other better alternatives to satisfy their wants.

One development in various parts of the country that bears watching is the spread of “community stores,” particularly in Seattle, Washington, Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, drab with bureaucracy and impersonal architecture, a colorful, almost oldfashioned group of these community store coops are busily serving people who want to change their habits and find less expensive alternatives. “Stone Soup” and “Glut” sell food and another store, “Rainbow Bridge” is about to open. There is a community warehouse and trucking coop to serve this network that hopes soon to connect up directly with farmers.”Bread and Roses” is a community record shop not far from a community bookshop. “Romah” is a home repair service while the Quaker House Print Shop helps the communications process. A community pharmacy and food store called “Fields of Plenty” is now underway to practice the preachments of consumer protection.

A small institution, called Strongforce, provides the tiny loans ($3,000 or under) to get these various operations underway. Strongforce’s young director, Mark Looney, says that the stores and businesses which are being established must be viewed as models and “not as the ultimate end ” “We can’t outcompete the capitalists, ” he says, “but we can establish a good number of models to influence government, Safeway and others.”

What Looney is referring to is a difference, not just in price and quality of goods and services from conventional retailers, but also in what he describes as “cooperation and community control that is in keeping with the human spirit “

If this sounds a little vague, dropping by one of these stores will provide enough specific evidence. The Stone Soup has been open just a few months and it has been grossing about $14,000 a week recently. It is a small store, replete with community bulletin boards, consumer crowds, diverse conversations (ole cracker barrel style) and, of course, food.

Customers measure out their desired amounts of flour (the real kind), grains, and beans. There is a welcome smell of fresh fruits and vegetables. The part time and full time workers are eager to answer questions about the products sold and why the price is what it is on a given day. Prices are listed clearly on the containers and produce prices marked on a large blackboard.

Once a week, Stone Soup holds open community meetings where anyone can participate to suggest ideas or help the store run better for its customers.

These community stores, while cooperative in nature, are different from the retail coops which developed in the Thirties and Forties. They are not formally structured with coop members. Instead, they find their constituency in the neighborhood. Also, the older line coops sell about the same products as, say, the A & P or Krogers does. In contrast, the community stores are determined to develop a “consumer culture” where the pulse of knowledge and values from the consumers flow regularly to the coordinators and workers who serve them. These stores are non-profit, with any surplus used to improve the store or service or help similar stores get underway in other parts of the Washington area.

Far beyond their small size, the most significant aspect of these stores is the deep and diverse range of consumer dissatisfaction with conventional marketplaces that is being disclosed. The plastic, price gouging, overpackaged, impersonal, take-it-or leave-it attitude of the corporate marketplace is jolting more consumers into a perceived awareness that it just doesn’t have to be this way and that they can do something about it directly. The growing education of consumers about product hazards, merchandising tricks, small print, poor nutrition and other concerns of the consumer movement further alerts people to alternatives.

For more information, write to Community Market, Route 5, Box 202, Louisa, Virginia 23093. This group has put out a national “Community Market Cooperative Catalog” ($2.45) which is a descriptive survey of this cooperative economy.