The Ashland Food Cooperative is much more than a place to buy your food. At its 45th birthday party Saturday, bubbling over with live music, beer, door prizes and endless hugs and chat among friends, people were eager to articulate this rich, almost exotic hub of the community, which seems more visited than all Ashland parks, theaters, restaurants and college combined.

When it set sail in 1972, where Thai Pepper is now (the right half of it), it was a buying club called “The Food Conspiracy,” allowing a small number of organic enthusiasts to get affordable bulk foods (rice, legumes, wheat berries, coffee beans, veggies), while sharing in store duties.

Soon it took on its durable name, “the Co-op,” and it lurched along at new sites on Hargadine and Water streets, recalls original member Jim Sims. Then it grew to maturity, in 1974 buying its sturdy building on Third Street, where it prospered for two decades. In 1994, using a memorable bucket brigade, it moved to its newly-constructed site on Pioneer Street, starting $100 ownerships.

“It became special because individual people saw it, not as external, but internal, not a business coming to them, but from them,” says Sims. “It was teaching us a lot of great lessons about people working together in a non-competitive environment and being successful with it.”

Forty-five years of this alternative model, he adds, “started to filter into our politics and personal lives. It’s empowering. You’re not low on some totem pole.”

Mark D’Olivo, who was born in Ashland, played quarterback in the late '70s at Ashland High School and saw the whole Co-op phenomenon unfold, says, “It’s a complete community. So many people make their living here and work here. They can buy a house here and raise kids here. They’re not just a number in some corporation.”

Although the Co-op was part of the new consciousness brought by '60s hippies, it was by no means a new thing, says Marketing Manager Annie Hoy. In her research, she found that co-ops took root among 18th century slaves in the Old South, people who contributed to a common pool to cover burial costs.

“This co-op did the same thing for this community,” says Hoy. “Families wanted unpackaged food they couldn’t get from (chain markets). They wanted safe, whole, organic food, not refined white flour. They wanted vital foods. It didn’t just happen here. There are hundreds of food co-ops across the country that are turning 45 now.”

The movement “tipped the power triangle upside down, so the consumer owns the business, then there’s a board of directors and the CEO on the bottom, not the other way around,” she said.

“I like the feel of it. Everyone is part of the team,” says member Tom Frantz. “My parents were hippies in the '70s, came here and cut and wrapped cheese at the co-op. When you shop here, you feel like you’re giving back. It’s the best managed business I ever saw.

“The vibration is that I feel like I’m living in the 1500s, going to market in the town square, feeling part of the soul of the community and the social scene. There’s no owner, no one who governs you. A community owns this. There’s no stock. You’re part of the farms here, part of the earth.”

The Co-op has become locally famous in past decades for giving annual grants of up to $30,000 a year in amounts from $500 to $20,000 a year, says board member and treasurer Charlie Douglas. In three decades, the Co-op has granted about $1 million to area nonprofits.

“It’s part of our mission to be involved in community work,” he says. “We offer the wonderful organic food and the vibe here is that it’s where people meet people and you know this conviviality while you shop. People hang outdoors with each other. It’s as much a meeting place as a shopping place.”

The Co-op is crowded, inside and out. Parking is crammed. Often they have a traffic director in the parking lot. They’ve put up lots of solar and are giving 5 percent off if you ride your bike there. They recycle bowls from their deli and use them again. But the Co-op does not have the mentality that if you’re successful, you must expand buildings and parking, say board members. It is happy as what it is.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.