Berkeley: Cooperative Capital of America?

by Bernard Marszalek on April 16, 2013

Over 20 cooperatives in Berkeley – one celebrating its 85th year!

To refer to Berkeley as the Cooperative Capital of America may seem like hyperbolic municipal boosterism, so I rush to define my terms. Firstly, I am excluding credit unions, consumer and housing cooperatives from my calculations. Secondly, the definition of “worker cooperative” that will be used here is a generic one, since California has no legal designation for worker cooperatives. And lastly, I am using the criteria established by the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC, pronounced “No Boss”!). NoBAWC stipulates that staff-run economic entities may apply for membership to the Network to benefit from its resources and mutual support. Not all of the co-ops I survey are members of NoBAWC.

Berkeley has a rich history of cooperatives, though most Berkeleyans seem to be oblivious to it and to the extent of its current manifestations. It is a shame that this innovative economy lacks recognition by both local politicians and the media.

A previous generation celebrated the Berkeley Food Co-op, established in 1937. At its height, it was the largest retail food cooperative in North America with 100,000 members. When it collapsed in 1988, due to a confluence of causes, it had three large outlets in Berkeley (besides ten outlying stores). The Andronico’s on Shattuck Avenue currently occupies the premises of its flagship store. John Curl, a participant in the Co-op, and today a member of a local worker co-op, wrote the definitive account in his exhaustive history of US cooperatives For All the People (PM Press, 2012).

However, the history of co-ops in Berkeley begins earlier with The Children’s Community Center, a parent–run pre-school, established ten years before the founding of the Berkeley Co-op. Last year CCC celebrated its 85th year in operation at the same location on Eunice Street. And another educational co-op, Walden Center and School, a K-6th grade school, was established 30 years after CCC. A few of its founders were friends of the organizers of KPFA. And around that time, the Arts and Crafts Cooperative, Inc. (ACCI), supported by the Berkeley Co-op in its early years, opened its gallery a block away from the Co-op on Shattuck Avenue, where it remains to this day.

Berkeley, of course, was a center of 60’s political activity when the preferred term for cooperative ventures was “collective.” The Cheese Board Collective, the celebrated cheese and pizza emporium in North Berkeley, was in business therefore long before the neighborhood got branded the Gourmet Ghetto. Around the corner, located in the Walnut Square complex on Vine St. (and near the original Peet’s) we find another collective, the Juice Bar. That tiny sliver of a store has been serving healthy lunches for decades. Across town in the Elmwood District, there’s Nabolom Collective Bakery where, besides their famous Cheese Danish, vegan baked goods found a home when it was a “cult food.” Along with these three collectives, there is Inkworks Press, a worker-run union print shop in West Berkeley, with the most spectacular façade of any business in Berkeley. And finally, the all-volunteer staff at the Berkeley Free Clinic refers to the clinic as a collective. The clinic practices healthcare as a basic human right, not as a commodified service. Another healthcare co-op began its practice in the 60s, Berkeley Massage and Self-Healing.

Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop, located in the landmarked Saw Tooth Building in West Berkeley, Missing Link Bicycle Co-op, the pioneering bike co-op founded by former UCB students, the Berkeley Potters Guild, now the largest guild of ceramic artists in Northern California and the internationally renown, La Pena Cultural Center, all opened their doors in the 70s. And this year Maybeck High School celebrates its 40th Anniversary. The longevity of these democratic institutions testifies to the sustainability of “people before profit” ventures.

924 Gilman Street Project, the all-ages music venue, was in the vanguard of the 90s second wave of cooperatives that sprouted up all across the SF Bay Area. To further this development, NoBAWC formed to provide services, to promote greater public awareness of the sector and to help develop more cooperatives. During this time, Cheese Board began replicating the highly successful Arizmendi Bakeries. And 10 years ago, Inkworks spun off Design Action, a graphic design group, that serves the non-profit community out of its office in Oakland.

In response to greater awareness of environmental issues, Pedal Express, the bicycle delivery service formed. And as digital technology became increasingly important for business communication, Cooperative Digital set up to install networking systems. A few years later BioFuel Oasis began pumping at their beautiful fuel station (yes, visit if you don’t believe me) at the corner of Ashby and Sacramento Streets.

In the past ten years, two co-ops formed: Three Stone Hearth, an innovative project that’s a “community supported kitchen” and Quilted, which designs websites for socially responsible groups. And the end is not in sight for cooperative ventures in Berkeley. Once again Berkeley has a food co-op, Berkeley Student Food Collective, a student-run enterprise across the street from the campus on Bancroft Avenue. And finally, for now, a new café cooperative, Alchemy Café, opened last year in South Berkeley on Adeline Street and has proven so successful that it will soon expand to a nearby location.

I challenge anyone to find a US city, of any size, with more worker cooperatives than Berkeley.

Bernard Marszalek

Co-founder of
NoBAWC Volunteer

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