TALES FROM THE COOP

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ROBBED IN NONCOOPERATIVE ARMED ASSAULT, PARK SLOPE FOOD COOP VOTES TO SHUFFLE FURNITURE

Last month's Park Slope Food Coop General Meeting responded to its first armed robbery by approving $140,000 to redesign the shopping floor's "front end," which won't do anything for security, but will at least do something soon.

The coordinators reported on the November 8 holdup, in which three or four (how can you lose track?) armed men stormed the food coop as it closed, stealing two cash registers, puncturing one man's eardum, and slashing one woman in the back. This first-ever robbery was a shock to the coop, whose only recent threat of violence had been in 1995, when a pissed-off member threatened to return with a gun. But members banded together after this new, first real assault, enduring, "in a cooperative spirit," nightmarishly long lines at one old replacement register till new ones were installed.

After the coordinators' report, the chair begged for more members to join the chair committee. No one responded. Chairing these meetings is as fun as donating bone marrow. The chair then outlawed points of information and order, which are the excuses by which the meeting can be interrupted. An uncommon move but not unwise, as the night's sole agenda item might be contentious: redesigning the front end of the store.

The front end has been annoying for years. It's cramped with narrow aisles, has splintery wooden counters, and has more checkpoints than a Russian supermarket (entrance-desk membership check, checkout counter, cashier counter, and finally an exit-door bag count and receipt check). It's barely changed as the coop has grown to 5,300 members. Redesign proposals have been aired, including one by rebel director Paul Sheridan in 1995 that never got anywhere. This meeting's proposal had been published in July by the coordinators, who asked for a vote in autumn to allow time for member feedback. Opposition members have long accused the coordinators of ignoring front end needs to make the proposed purchase of the Building Next Door seem more urgent, and have asked why the coordinators choose to spend tens of thousands of cash assets to pay off mortgages rather than fix the front end.

Ubercoordinator Joe Holtz presented the new plans, aided by an architect with two giant drawings. Holtz said that checkout and payment would be faster with bar-code scanners, bigger counters, and computer data entry. Eliminating price stickers on each item would mean greater accuracy, as would computer-generated, itemized checkout tapes. Inventory control could generate weekly, daily, even hourly reports of what was sold. We could even study stealable items, noting what gets stocked but not paid for. The new design would widen the in and out side aisles for wheelchair access, though squeezing the entrance-desk workers and cashiers so badly that they could no longer sit back to back, only side to side.

I asked why that front workspace was so cramped, and whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to the redesign -- would there be extra costs if a certification failed? The architect apologized for the tight working space, and she and Holtz said that the wider aisles were ADA-complaint. My wordy double question had sounded like I wanted a wheelchair-accessible workspace; I was more interested in the cost risks if the ADA required an inspection that we might fail. But I didn't follow up because I saw there was a video camera, and remembered how monstrous I look on film, if not in real life, and let it go. I admired the poise of the architect, who was not only used to public presentations, but was also cute.

Another member asked if the proposal could include securing the doors to the coop as each person entered. A good question; Holtz said that none of the proposal's parts would impede new security measures. But none of them seemed to help security, either. So the answer was no. The member then asked if the roller belt along one wall could be raised so he could tuck his cart beneath it if he wanted to hang out after shopping. No to that, too. Said one coordinator, "The whole system is designed on the presumption that you will leave."

A suggestion that the line be streamlined by merging the checkout and cashier jobs, instead of keeping the ridiculous current double checkpoint, was rejected. A coordinator said that most members absolutely hated handling money, so we would be left with almost no one wanting to do checkout.

A coordinator noted that a side effect of the proposal, the need to abandon one-time, per-item pricing and relabel shelves as coop costs change (we charge 20% above markup, and wholesale prices fluctuate) will mean an extra member-labor burden, but that the law requires it anyway, and that we've been sort of illegally avoiding that by not retagging older shelved items to reflect new prices, leading to different prices for identical items.

Discussion followed. Two members asked if we could get rid of the nuisance of the exit-door worker, our fourth and final checkpoint in shopping. Nope; we still need someone to check receipts, as theft by members of other members' boxes and bags was once a problem. Another person suggested that the available cash should be instead spent to cut prices across the board, for a more direct member benefit: "I'd rather have long lines." The coordinators replied that the cash would mean only $25/member, while the average member spends around $1,600 a year at the coop -- a pittance of an individual savings.

Complained one member: "I hate scanners, video cameras," -- the camera operator promptly aimed it away from him -- "chrome counters. . . . I like the rickety wooden counters." Another member, less low-tech, suggested building a pulley system to lift and carry away babies from the stroller-storage area.

The proposal was passed overwhelmingly, 27-3 with 1 abstention. After members announced folk music and the upcoming "tribunal" for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the board of directors voted 4-0 to confirm the General Meeting vote, and we went home.

$140,000. I was uncomfortable voting for such a large sum. The Coop cannot spend over $10,000 in new appropriations without General Meeting approval, a rule undoubtably sparked by opposition wishes to better control the coordinators. Well there we were, exercising our franchise at a well-attended GM, for a good and overdue project that's been wanted, even begged for, by both coop mainstreamers and radicals.

So why my angst? Well, three times as many members had been expected at that meeting; it was held in the bigger of two rooms used for it, and we felt lonely surrounded by empty chairs. We were a healthy quorum, but the healthy participation we should have gotten never showed.

And second, what at first looked like a quick response to our first real violence didn't address that at all, but was instead the final step in a process begun long before. The cashiers are still a few feet away from the exit door. The entrance desk can still be sneaked past. To avoid keeping money in a safe, we send out members with bank deposits several times a day, which may keep the coop safer but not necessarily those members. It's too soon to make decisions about security; a coop forum will be held December 11 to discuss that. But I had hoped for some security decisionmaking at that meeting.

The long lines caused by the robbers' register theft were nothing compared to several years of crowded shopping as the coop grows and its politicized, consensus-dependent systems fail to keep up with that growth. This redesign is long overdue. But it's a late answer to a much earlier question.

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jkarpf@echonyc.com