Reader remembers Bay Area Briarpatch movement

Alice Newton of Menlo Park, California wrote to The Vine about the BriarPatch name and the Briarpatch Co-op Market in Menlo Park where she was a manager from its organizing phase to its closing, 1974-1985.

Her story adds depth to the origins of our own BriarPatch Co-op, as our founders modeled our store after the Bay Area co-ops.

Out of curiosity, this morning I decided to Google on your co-op store and find out how you are doing. I’m glad the store is flourishing and especially to know about the 40th anniversary party in October. It was very interesting to read about the beginnings of your store. There is a bit more I’d like to add. I was one of the co-managers hired for the Briarpatch (our spelling) Co-op Market in Menlo Park in 1974. We opened in March of 1975 and closed in the summer of 1985. We named our store the Briarpatch Co-op Market because we were part of the Briarpatch Network, a group of small businesses in the Bay Area dedicated to sharing ideas, information, and trying new business models. Lawyers, accountants, people of many skills, and various types of businesses participated. Here’s a historical clip from www.briarpatch.net:

The Briarpatch was founded in Menlo Park in 1974. Fathered by Dick Raymond of the Portola Institute and mothered by Gurney Norman, author of “Divine Rights Trip” in The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, the phenomenon of mutual support for right livelihood and simple living was an idea whose time had come.

Folks involved in the extended family/community that grew up around the Whole Earth Catalogue formed various businesses including a co-op food market, a woman-owned auto repair store, and several others. Gurney Norman put together the first Briarpatch Review using Whole Earth’s layout studio. In it, he described this new form of socially conscious, mutual self-support for businesses.” Briarpatch.ning.com describes it as, “A network of friends in business. We celebrate honesty, openness, and mutual support as superior business strategies.” The name “Briarpatch” came from Uncle Remus’ Brer Rabbit story in which Brer Rabbit was “born and bred in the Briarpatch,” i.e. thriving despite a difficult environment. Another metaphor for us was the vision of us thriving like weeds growing in the cracks of our society. Members of Briarpatch businesses were known as “Briars.”

Our store was modeled on the “direct charge method” of financing and managing that some members of the Palo Alto Co-op Market chain of five supermarkets were impressed by and wanted to try. This method was used by some co-op stores in Canada as well as the North Coast Co-op in Arcata and Co-Opportunity in Santa Monica. The Board of the Palo Alto Co-op was reluctant to try it, so these members decided to try to do so on their own. They collaborated with the Briarpatch Network, a $2000 grant was given, I was hired, and soon another person was hired to co-manage with me. We began getting members and share money. We described our store as, “An Anti-Profit Direct Charge Community Supplies Depot,” and our motto was, “We do it ourselves.” A few months later, we found a 7-11 store that was not doing well, leased their building, and opened our store in March, 1975. Our paid staff consisted of three co-managers and a bookkeeper. The co-managers directed tasks done by members working three hours a month. Goods were sold at wholesale and operating expenses were equally divided into a “direct charge” paid by the members. We operated as a direct charge market until 1980, when we were compelled to make changes. We bought our building. Membership and working became voluntary and the store opened to the public. When we closed, we felt we had done well and decided to close honorably while we could pay our debts and repay a significant portion of members’ share investments. Our Briarpatch Co-op Market had been much more than just a co-op store; it was an empowering experience of strength and joy from working together that had a profound impact on our lives. We had a grand reunion party in 2000 and we still call ourselves “Briars.”

The Mountain View Briarpatch Market in Mountain View, California, opened in 1976 and closed, I believe, in 1984. Although the approximately 25 large co-op markets and shared warehouse that spanned 66 years in the Bay Area with thousands of members closed in 2001, currently in California the North Coast Co-op (northcoast.coop), the Davis Food Co-op (davisfood.coop), and Co-Opportunity in Santa Monica (cooportunity.com) — all of which opened in the mid-1970’s —are flourishing as big stores like yours. Their history statements are very interesting also.

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