Descriptive Participant Observations on the Culture of the Park Slope Food Coop

Writing assignment for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

The Park Slope Coop (PSFC) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1973. It offers sustainably and ethically produced food and grocery items. Because it needs only to cover costs rather than turn a profit, the PSFC’s prices are substantially lower than a typical Brooklyn grocery store. Since its founding, it has grown from a small ad-hoc organization into a substantial neighborhood institution with over 17,000 members. Only Coop members are allowed to shop, and members are required to work a monthly two hour and forty-five minute volunteer shift. This is unusual—most food coops give members the option of paying a membership fee rather than working. The PSFC is managed by a core staff of paid employees, but members perform much of the day-to-day labor, which helps keep costs low.

Park Slope Food Coop exterior

The aisles are narrow, stacked floor to ceiling with inventory. Per the web site, the store carries “local, organic and conventionally grown produce; pasture-raised and grass-fed meat; free-range, organic and kosher poultry; fair-traded chocolate and coffee; wild and sustainably farmed fish; supplements and vitamins; imported and artisan cheese; freshly baked bread, bagels and pastries; bulk grains and spices; environmentally safe cleaning supplies, and much more.” The PSFC generates over fifty million dollars in sales revenue per year, with a “shrink rate” (merchandise lost, damaged or stolen) of about half the industry average. The environment feels markedly different from a typical grocery store. There is a conspicuous absence of candy, magazines, soda, marketing aimed at kids, and branding and marketing generally. The only periodical available is the PSFC’s own Linewaiter’s Gazette, which resembles a high school newspaper.

Members work a variety of different jobs, but most belong to the two largest squads, Shopping and Receiving. I have been a member of both. The Shopping squad includes the checkout workers and cashiers; entrance workers who check membership IDs and make sure that shopping members are in good standing; and exit workers who check receipts as a nominal check against shoplifting. Checkout at the Coop is a notably different procedure from the grocery store. Volunteer workers can be slow and disorganized, though also friendlier and more sociable. Shoppers bag their own purchases, and since the Coop pointedly does not provide plastic or paper bags, they must bring or buy their own tote bags, or use empty boxes. The Shopping squad leader has control over the music that plays over the PA system in the shopping floor. The music comes in three main flavors: aged hippie (Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley); Gen-X hipster (eighties hits, Curtis Mayfield, P-Funk) and millennial hipster (indie rock, Frank Ocean.) Current pop, hip-hop and EDM are vanishingly rare, as is classical music.

The most visible members of the Shopping squad are the orange-vested walkers, a frequent sight in the blocks surrounding the store. Shoppers can use the Coop’s big sidewalk-friendly carts to transport their bags and boxes home, to their cars, or to nearby subway stations and bus stops. Walkers accompany them, and then return the carts back to the store. They do not help shoppers unload their carts, and are not supposed to receive tips.

I am currently a member of the Receiving squad. We move boxes of inventory from delivery trucks into the basement, and from the basement to the shopping floor, where we then stock the items on the shelves. We also flatten and bale empty cardboard boxes—I usually request this task, because it’s physical, pleasantly mindless and doesn’t require navigating the crowded aisles. Receiving brings members into the “behind-the-scenes” areas of the store: the basement, freight elevators, walk-in coolers, and so on. Because it involves more heavy lifting than the Shopping squad, the Receiving squad skews younger and more male, though not at all exclusively.

Other work assignments include food processing, the membership office, the customer service desk, the maintenance crew, and the Coop’s on-site childcare. (This last amenity is so valuable that it invites abuse—there are stories of members dropping their kids off for the entire day.) The PSFC has recently started offering valet bike parking on the weekends. Like the walkers, this last service seems like a sign that there is an absurd oversupply of volunteer labor, which is true, but both jobs serve a necessary practical function as well. The store receives an incredible amount of traffic, especially on the weekends, and parking is in short supply for cars and bikes alike. The walkers and bike valets presumably prevent a great many parking tickets and incidents of bike theft.

The PSFC has an outspoken set of values and principles. It supports sustainable, environmentally conscious agriculture, and strives to avoid exploitatively produced products. It not only recycles the usual bottles and cardboard, but also takes pains to accept difficult-to-recycle items like yogurt containers and toothpaste tubes. When possible, the Coop sources from local producers. Due to its size, it is able to purchase the entire output of some smaller farms. A large percentage of members are vegetarians or vegans. Others eat strictly organic and non-GMO food, or follow paleo or gluten-free diets. Much of the inventory is kosher, and right before Passover, Orthodox Jewish members do massive shopping trips. The store’s offerings also support more esoteric and New Age-y lifestyles, for example macrobiotic and homeopathic. Some PSFC members, myself included, roll their eyes at such beliefs, but it is rare for anyone to criticize them openly.

Members are welcome to give input on PSFC policy questions large and small, at least if they are willing to attend lengthy and tedious meetings. Some issues become extended and agonized debates, like a recent proposed boycott of Israel over the occupation of Palestine, but for the most part, rank-and-file members are content to defer to the wishes of the most outspoken activists. Coop members’ politics range from outspoken liberalism to various flavors of radical leftism. If politically or socially conservative members exist, they keep a low profile. A recent mention of Donald Trump over the PA system provoked store-wide booing. The PSFC’s outspoken values are both an attraction to members and a source of some mockery (and self-mockery.) It is easy to satirize the Coop’s intense and sometimes over-the-top hippie-ish earnestness, but the feeling of co-ownership and community is very real, even for a jaded cynic like me. If I see trash on the floor, I pick it up as a matter of course, which I would never dream of doing at the supermarket.

The work requirement is the PSFC’s main distinguishing feature, and the subject of the most discussion among members. To prevent absenteeism, when members miss their shift without a valid excuse, they are required to make up two shifts. Failure to make up the shifts in a month or two results in suspension of shopping privileges until the member is back in good standing. If you miss several shifts in a row, you may end up owing many hours of work before you can resume shopping. The ins and outs of the work requirement are the subject of constant low-key grumbling, but little genuine resentment. There are stories of members conducting various scams to evade work, or forcing their nannies to do shifts, but these cases are exceedingly rare. After a member of my squad was busted for freeloading off his wife’s membership, he cheerfully acknowledged that it was only fair he do shifts as well. I have met several former members who bitterly complain about being unable or unwilling to meet the work requirement. On the other hand, some members positively cherish their Coop jobs. A friend of mine who is snarky and dismissive about nearly everything becomes uncharacteristically reverent when he talks about how much he loves working his shift.

The PSFC membership reflects the demographics of Park Slope and its surrounding neighborhoods: broadly diverse, but with white professionals increasingly prevalent. The largest minority groups are African-Americans of Caribbean descent and Orthodox Jews, which reflects the store’s proximity to Crown Heights. All age groups are well represented. Men and women are present in roughly equal numbers, along with a significant number of trans and non-binary people. While the Coop has a reputation for being dominated by yuppies, the class demographics cover a broad spectrum, with a small percentage of shoppers who pay using EBT. Park Slope has changed dramatically since the Coop opened, transforming from a rough and decaying neighborhood in the 1970s to the desirable and rapidly gentrifying one it is today. Housing in the area was once cheap enough to attract the hippies and artists who founded the Coop, but is now nearly as expensive as Manhattan. Most members come from other parts of Brooklyn—I live in the adjoining neighborhood of Prospect Heights, and my trip to the store is shorter than most. Some members live in other boroughs entirely, and a few even travel in from New Jersey and Connecticut.

The PSFC has a visible minority of very wealthy members who live nearby and have joined for ideological reasons, or because it is fashionable. However, by and large, the Coop appeals to people who have more time than money. Park Slope’s wealthier and more time-pressured residents tend to shop down the block at Union Market, or have their groceries delivered by Fresh Direct. Members who work and shop during weekday hours are likely to be nontraditionally employed (e.g. freelancers, artists, academics), unemployed, or stay-at-home parents. For several months, I worked the box-crushing shift along with a spoken word poet who makes a living as a teaching artist in schools. My wife is a lawyer with a much more demanding work schedule than mine, so I work her shifts as well; this arrangement is a common one among couples.

The PSFC has expanded its footprint over the years, but not as quickly as its membership has grown. The cramped space is usually crowded, especially during peak shopping times. Like riding the subway at rush hour, navigating the space requires a high tolerance for having your personal space invaded. As in the subway, some friction is inevitable, but for the most part shoppers tolerate the chaos with same inward-focused resignation and wry humor that New Yorkers show in any similar situation. The feeling is quite different from the impatience and barely suppressed hostility that pervades similarly long lines at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Ethan Hein

Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry

Revised Culture Description

There is a tension between the Park Slope Food Coop’s past and its present. The Coop started small, intimate, and disorganized. As it has grown, it has inevitably become more efficient and correspondingly more impersonal. This tension comes out most clearly under pressure, particularly the pressure of peak shopping times. On the busiest weekend afternoons, every cubic foot of space in the aisles is occupied by shoppers or their carts. Simply getting from one end of an aisle to another requires shoppers to negotiate traffic pileups, uncomfortable invasions of personal space, and flashes of hostility. New Yorkers who have experienced waiting in a line to walk up a flight of stairs in the subway will be familiar with the feeling. The checkout lines can get so long that they wrap around an aisle or two, which exacerbates the congestion and strains tempers further. For the most part, Coop members tolerate these situations with outward politeness, even if it takes a passive-aggressive form. I have never witnessed a fight, but I have seen plenty of short, nasty verbal exchanges (and participated in a few.)

There are two styles of working checkout, which I term laid back and efficient. In the laid back style, you handle each shopper one at a time. They unload their items, you scan them, they pack them up and pay, you print the receipt and hand it to them, they leave, and you signal the next person waiting. In the efficient style, as soon as you are finished scanning the shopper’s items, you signal the next person. While the first shopper pays and loads up, the second unloads their items. It is more demanding for the checkout worker to manage the limited space around their station and keep everyone’s items separate, but done well, it eliminates down time and moves shoppers through the line and out of the store as quickly as possible.

I practice the efficient style—it seems like common courtesy not to keep people waiting longer than necessary. The laid back style seems to me to be lazy and wasteful. I was surprised, then, to find that some Coop members reject the efficient style, even finding it positively offensive. They do not like feeling rushed or pressured. To them, the cost of having the wait be a bit longer is a fair price to pay to be able to check out in peace. Pushback against the efficient style comes exclusively from older Coop members. Of those, the vocal laid back advocates are majority white women. Meanwhile, the most assertively efficient workers tend to be younger, white, and male.

The Coop is ostensibly anti-capitalist, but it is still part of New York City’s culture, and America’s. Working checkout on busy weekends has given me occasion to wonder how much my valuing of efficiency is “common sense,” and how much of it is my Weberian Protestant work ethic run amok. I am unlikely ever to go completely laid back, but I am trying to learn to appreciate the emotional value of an less aggressive and pressuring stance toward other members.

The PSFC has attained a level of cultural notoriety, and is the subject of much invective and stereotyping for its supposed yuppie pretension and excessive rule-orientedness. Members have a reputation for being as passive-aggressive and self-obsessed as Seinfeld characters. I have not found them to be any more eccentric than any other large group of New Yorkers, but I suppose you have to interact directly with people in the PSFC more often than in other contexts. For myself, the Coop acts as an invaluable community hub. I see neighbors and school friends and former coworkers regularly, and find it far easier to chat with strangers there than elsewhere. For all its quirks and excesses, the PSFC embodies political and social values that I care about, and I am grateful that my kids experience it as part of their normal routine, as the way the world works.

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