Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Years before there was Whole Foods and 11 farmers markets in Arlington, there was the Arlington food co-op.

That volunteer health-food buying project birthed in the mid-1970s became the “Uncommon Market.” It assembled 2,000 members and a colorful cast of dedicated counterculture activists, many of whom played (and continue in) major roles in county affairs. I recently reminisced with a warehouse’s worth.

“In those hippie days, we all wanted green vegetables and organic products, which were hard to find,” said Cecilia Cassidy, who helped launch the buying club and now heads the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. “So volunteers drove to warehouses downtown” (wholesalers at Florida Ave. NE), or to farms in Maryland to pick up gallon jugs of cider, she said, recalling a time the heavy jugs caused an axle on their van to break.

Purchasers who joined what was legally called the Arlington Cooperative Organization would submit orders for, say, loaves of bread, recalled longtime schools activist Howie Kallem, now retiring as a civil rights attorney in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Volunteers in someone’s garage would break out the orders, and it worked great for a while,” he said. “But it became too successful, and we couldn’t fit it all in the van.”

So the part-time entrepreneurs rented a modest storefront open to the public (co-op members got a discount) backed by an outdoor second-hand walk-in refrigerator. “For many years the co-op meetings were held at Reeb Hall, the former social hall of the Arlington Unitarian Church,” recalled co-founder and treasurer John Reeder, a retired government economist now a housing activist. “We initially used the hall for distribution of food we bought before we rented our first location at 2400 Columbia Pike.”

That old house next to a coffee shop allowed greater storage space, but was soon outgrown. So the Uncommon Market moved to more-substantial locations, eventually a former firehouse for volunteers at S. Edgewood and Walter Reed Dr.

Co-op volunteers did renovations. The leaders hired the first staff, a 17-year-old H.B. Woodlawn student Chip White. (Another H.B grad, Clara Griffin, would later manage the project.). Wages, organizers admit, weren’t high.

The co-op got news coverage from Northern Virginian Magazine, Channel 7 and the Washington Post.

In 1978, Jay Jacob Wind, the long-distance runner who was involved with student co-ops at the national level for nearly a decade, moved to Arlington. He was quickly put on the five-member board and promoted to president. Wind led efforts to raise capital by upping requested investor rates and winning occasional rent breaks from a generous landlord. “If you’re a membership organization, you have to reinvent yourself, even after a membership drive,” he told me.

Leadership rotated, and Emily Carnes, who recently served as president of the Better Sports Club of Arlington, took the reins and retained community support, Wind said.

But as food choices expanded, enthusiasm flagged, raising the threat of bankruptcy. The end came in 2005 for reasons partially in dispute, perhaps a leadership contest and personality clash. The co-op could not find affordable management, a former board member said.

Kallem said many avid volunteers found it harder to find time once they started families. But the real reason, said Reeder, is that “a collective-run business and consumer co-op were not an efficient business to compete with the likes of Whole Foods.”

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Fun to see my neighborhood referenced in the nationally syndicated “Flashbacks” feature in the Washington Post comics section.

“In 1927, several interurban electric railways merged into the Arlington and Fairfax Railway,” wrote Pennsylvania-based historical illustrator Patrick M. Reynolds in the Sept. 30 edition.

His map shows the old commuter train’s route from Fairfax through Falls Church to Rosslyn before it faced bankruptcy in the mid-1930s. Part II coming.