TALES OF TAKOMA: The roots of the TPSS Co-op

1998: Politicians and neighbors gather for the grand opening of the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op. After decades as the Turner Electric building, the arrival of the Co-op returns the structure to its origins as a Safeway grocery. Marc Elrich, city councilmember at the time, now county councilmember, at the podium.

IMAGE: 1998: Politicians and neighbors gather for the grand opening of the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op. After decades as the Turner Electric building, the arrival of the Co-op returned the structure to its origins as a Safeway grocery. Marc Elrich, city councilmember at the time, now county councilmember, at the podium. Photo: Historic Takoma, Inc.

TALES OF TAKOMA • DIANA KOHN

The TPSS Co-op is back in the news as part of the unfolding saga of development at Takoma Junction. When the Co-op opened its current store in the Turner Electric building in 1998, it was already in its 17th year. The cooperative tradition itself, however, traces back to 1843 when textile millworkers in Rochdale, England organized to open an alternative to the company store.

Taking matters into their own hands in the aftermath of a 1843 failed strike, a group of 28 workers declared themselves the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. Pooling their money for a year, they made bulk purchases of butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal. In December 1844, the store opened with only these four items plus tallow candles. The candles were the result of a bulk purchase necessitated by the company’s refusal to supply gas to light the store.

This was not the first attempt at a cooperative, but Rochdale was the first to succeed in large part because they created a set of operating principles. Those principles have served as the basis for the cooperative movement ever since. They are: (1) voluntary and open membership, (2) democratic member control, (3) member economic participation, (4) autonomy and independence, (5) education, training and information, (6) cooperation among cooperatives, and (7) concern for community.

Junction1

The TPSS Co-op, fall 2014.

Long before Rochdale, American farmers had been banding together to gain economic leverage with more or less success. Some made joint purchases of seeds and equipment; others pooled their harvests to sell in quantity or set up facilities for cheese-making.

Consumers groups, looking at benefits of the farmer and Rochdale models, created consumer protection associations – only to have most fail for lack of capital or poor management.

By the early 1900s, however, using the Rochdale plan, cooperatives aimed at consumers began to find success. It was largely a small town phenomenon, however. In 1920, 80% of the 2600 consumer coops were operating in towns with less than 2500 people. Typically the groups organized to make purchases from a cooperatively owned wholesaler – until the growing demands on the wholesalers themselves caused the entire system to collapse.

The New Deal years following the Great Depression fostered a new round of co-op organizing. The largest of these – in Berkeley, Palo Alto, Eau Claire and Hyde Park lasted until the 1980s. Notable among these was the co-op in Greenbelt, the New Deal town north of Takoma Park. In the late 1950s, a branch of the Greenbelt Co-op was opened on New Hampshire Avenue to serve our community.

By the late 1960s, the “natural foods” movement was taking hold and new co-ops were opened to reflect the political values of a younger generation. Stores featured whole, unrefined bulk foods. Volunteers served as some or all of the staff. Management was under worker and member control. In 1981 residents of Takoma Park and near-in Silver Spring founded the TPSS Co-op as a vegetarian storefront in a community that shares the values first laid out by the Rochdale co-op.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.