Natural Foods Merchandiser

Social Center Springs From Shed

In these days of fast-paced schedules and almost instantaneous communication, many natural foods stores struggle to stay in touch with customers on a personal level. But not the Bolinas People's Store, in Bolinas, Calif. The collective's owner, Claire Heart, will tell you it's because the Marin County store actually belongs to the people themselves.

"It's protected as the community's store," Heart says, and explains that the People's Store is structured as a workers' collective, so the employees make the decisions about how the store will be run. Seven of the 16 employees are owners of the collective.

The People's Store, established in 1976, evolved from its original status as a produce stand to its current standing as a community mainstay. The store's 800-square-foot building, formerly a storage shed, was originally rented from the Bolinas Community Center for $1 a month. Today the rent is a little higher, Heart says, but the building, now brightly painted and ornamented by colorful flower boxes, has become a hub of activity in the town.

It might seem like an easy task for the store to stay in touch with its customers' needs, considering that the town of Bolinas has fewer than 2,000 people. The employees seem to know almost everyone who comes in, and the checkout lines buzz with almost as many long conversations and excited reunions as they do purchases. "We're doing business with our friends and neighbors," Heart says.

But the People's Store still takes extra steps to make sure customers are receiving the best service and are finding the products they want. "The real foundation is our request sheet," says Judy Dugan, a collective member since 1980. A glance at the list, which allows customers to request products they want the store to carry, shows that the customers make good use of it. At least one request comes in every day of the week.

Bolinas People's Store
14 Wharf Road
Bolinas, CA 94924
Number of employees: 16 (7 are collective owners)
Weekly sales: $19,000
Best-selling department: Produce
That high volume of requests could be a problem for the 800-square-foot store that fits all the different sections found in a larger chain store. Aside from its best-selling department, the produce section, the store also contains freezer and refrigerator sections; a health and beauty department with several different brands; a bulk spice, coffee and tea section; a baked goods section; an herb and supplements department; and a deli. But by paying attention to what customers want, the People's Store uses its limited space for the products that its shoppers want most.

The store's focus on belonging to the community has kept customers returning even after the opening of a Whole Foods Market nearby and despite competition from other large chains. "We know that people are going to Costco and Trader Joe's, because we ask people to return bags for reuse," Heart says. "But we know our processes are comparative to [those of the] big chains."

The size of the store, or lack of, seems to be part of the attraction for Bolinas residents. "It's a human-scale store," Heart says. "You see more stores like this if you go to Ireland or England."

One of the foundational values of the People's Store is a commitment to the environment and sustainability, which definitely affects its business practices, especially its produce department. In the summertime, the produce section is a vibrant rainbow of organic fruits and vegetables, reflecting the abundance of California's countryside. But Heart explains that customers might not always be able to find the exact produce they're looking for because the store stays in tune with the seasons, carrying fruits and vegetables when they are bountiful but not bothering to carry poor-quality, out-of-season produce just for the sake of having it on the shelf. "We don't have to have everything here at once, because we believe in seasonality," Heart says.

The store does business with local farmers as much as possible and takes transportation into consideration when buying its $6,000 worth of produce each week. "You've also got to look at what's best for the farmers and the environment," Heart says. "Do we have to order strawberries all the way from Chile? Being closer to your sources is important."

People's acts locally in other departments as well. The bread section is provided mainly by local bakers from nearby Point Reyes and Berkeley.

Groceries aside, many Bolinas residents come out for the People's Store's lunch offerings. The store sells about 20 sandwiches a day and carries three varieties of soups. Heart's background in catering shines through in her recipe for Island Girl soup, a Thai green-curry creation that has become the most popular soup.

Whether customers come in to buy a week's worth of groceries or just a bowl of soup for lunch, the Bolinas People's Store seems to have won the hearts of the people. With only one other grocery store in town, many patrons choose to shop only at the natural foods store. The picnic tables outside the store have become a meeting ground for the people of Bolinas, young and old. "For a lot of people, shopping here is their primary social event," Heart says.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 10/p. 62

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