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Open Letter

So long. Farewell. Auf Wiedersehen. Good night. Good-bye, good-bye, good-by-y-y-y-y-ye!

You, too, should take some inspiration from the Von Trapp children, and leave good-naturedly in a burst of song when it is so clearly your bedtime. Co-Op, it is time for the big sleep.

As you know, Co-Op members are now voting on whether to shut you down. From the recent press coverage, many Chicagoans think you are a beloved 75-year-old neighborhood grocery store and institution beset by villainous creditors and its landlord, the nefarious University of Chicago.

Well, Co-Op, you are old. You are broke. You owe your 55th Street landlord, the U of C, over a million dollars in back rent. For the next 16 years you're locked into another $1 million annual lease for an expansion store on 47th Street that went bust in 2005 after only a few years. You have to pay rent on the closed 47th Street store because that landlord is your main food distributor, Certified Grocers Midwest, which is considerably less generous than the University. And you lost money taking over yet another grocery store on 53rd Street, Mr. G's - also now closed.

You are old, you are broke. But you are not beloved. You inspire a hatred so raw among most Hyde Parkers, it's a wonder we're not all down with food poisoning, regardless of the quality of your products. In that sense, you are a powerful force for neighborhood unity. University-affiliated or not, black or white, middle-class or low-income, Hyde Parkers bond joyously over our antipathy for you. The phrase "I hate the Co-Op" is a cherished hymn of solidarity. After you are gone - oh happy day! - will we ever be this close again? Or will we fall apart, like the Harold Washington coalition without Harold Washington? I, for one, am willing to risk it.

The recent Town Hall meeting to discuss your future drew a reported 400 to 500 people, most of whom surprised me by going on about how wonderful and warm and close-knit the Co-Op is. I was looking around for Rod Serling when someone stood up and brought the room back to reality: "I really would like to know what drives this love for this institution," Edna Epstein was quoted in the Tribune account. "I'm one of those who will do virtually anything not to shop at the Co-Op." She was answered by a surly murmur from the crowd.

What I figure is this: The vast majority of Hyde Parkers whooped when they heard about your potential closing, Co-Op, and needed no meeting to persuade them to vote you out of existence. They were too busy throwing confetti out their windows.

The people who did come - 500 at most - would be a small percentage of the 2,600 members even if every single person owned a Co-Op share. Of those 500 attendees, up to 170 may have been Co-Op employees with their own agenda. Certainly the front-end employees, whom I recognize, were strongly represented in the folding chairs, along with their union rep, lustily calling out their approval and disapproval. The union rep made a fierce speech promising to oppose any closing.

In other words, that meeting was stacked.

Now, why do people who don't cash your paychecks hate you so much? What have you done to earn the eternal contempt of Edna Epstein, myself, and every neighbor I've ever known (barring one) in my 23 years in Hyde Park? You began in 1932 as a neighborhood buying club and became a supermarket. Mahalia Jackson sang at a 1954 ribbon-cutting for a previous location. At the Town Hall meeting, venerable former 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres, an original member, spoke eloquently about the need to save you. I hate to disagree with Mr. Despres.

However, you are not the fight-the-power, pioneering institution people like Mr. Despres fondly remember. Your troubles - financial and otherwise - did not begin recently, or even in the late 1990's, as pro-Co-Op people now claim. That's when you opened that stupid 47th Street store in a bid to keep all competitors out of the neighborhood. No; when I moved here in 1984, you were already the sorriest store I'd ever shopped, run by the most hostile employees I have encountered anywhere, including New York.

"You know that one checker, the man who won't even look at you?" asked my husband the other day.

"Won't look at you?" I said. "You'll have to be a lot more specific."

Co-Op, you have literally a handful of employees - five - who are friendly and helpful to the customers. And they are wonderful people. Unfortunately, current technology and federal laws prevent us from cloning them to staff the entire store.

In the past few months, a new manager has brought many of your crazy prices down to a closer version of what sane people will pay in a non-Communist country. But even the new manager acknowledges the prices remain higher than chain stores like Dominick's and Jewel, because the Co-Op lacks their economy of scale. And you'd have to give me a hefty savings to make up for your employees, anyway.

A Sun-Times editorial on November 25 vociferously campaigned to keep you open. Sadly, the editorial got everything wrong. The Sun-Times incorrectly includes Hyde Park among the low-income, isolated urban neighborhoods now called "food deserts" for their complete lack of real grocery stores with fresh produce and meat. Then the editorial spent all but one paragraph decrying food deserts.

Hyde Park is often lumped with troubled inner city neighborhoods simply by virtue of its location on the South Side. We're used to it. But Hyde Park is far from poor, and while it may be many other things, it is not a food desert. To call Hyde Park a food desert is insulting to the neighborhoods which truly are suffering from an absence of healthful shopping opportunities.

Before the Co-Op tried taking over the entire neighborhood in the '90s, Hyde Park had three supermarkets: the current 55th Street Co-Op, Mr. G's, and Village Foods. Then the Co-Op, against all good business sense, opened the 47th Street store, took over Mr. G's, and subsequently closed the two new branches. That still leaves us with the 55th Street flagship Co-Op, Village Foods, and the small but mighty Hyde Park Produce - about to expand to fill the former Mr. G's location. Two other long-time small grocery stores in the neighborhood also sell fresh produce. Believe me, if we want a banana or even freshly squeezed orange juice, we don't have far to go.

The Sun-Times editorial also raised a familiar bogeyman, a favorite of Co-Op supporters: What if the University doesn't replace the Co-Op with a "major supermarket"? Any shopper brave enough to routinely face a sullen Co-Op checker cannot be scared off so easily. Nothing, frankly, can give us worse nightmares than the Co-Op.

The University can be occasionally irritating, yet it is very much in the business of attracting top-quality students and faculty. Hank Webber, U of C's vice president for community and government affairs, pointed out in Crain's Chicago Business that the absence of a premier supermarket makes recruiting difficult: "We're in the global business of competing for students and faculty and staff," he said. "One of the things we compete on is quality of life."

The University knows it has to replace the Co-Op with a good store. Otherwise, the new store would be unable to draw back the legions of Hyde Parkers who now travel to 12th Street or downtown for groceries, and Co-Op stalwarts would shun it as well. And something tells me the University would like to get its rent paid again for a change.

We Co-Op members have two voting choices. Plan A, as it's called, would liquidate the Co-Op in an orderly manner. The University would forgive the back rent and pay the other creditors. The University says it has a new grocer lined up to move in within two weeks of closing the Co-Op.

In Plan B, the Co-Op would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, try to pay off its current debt and buy out the 47th Street lease for another $2.5 million. At the Town Hall meeting, even pro-bankruptcy board members conceded this would require a major capital campaign to raise the money.

Local Ald. Toni Preckwinkle told the Town Hall meeting she doesn't think the Co-Op can make it under Chapter 11. And the Co-Op's own financial advisor on this matter, Ronald Barliant, principal of the law firm Goldberg Kohn, told the Hyde Park Herald there would have to be "considerable financing in place" just to pay for the "extensive" cost of bankruptcy itself.

Co-Op, I am now reminded of another song. For every thing (turn, turn, turn), there is a season. Now is the time to quit.


Cate Plys


Remember the old admonition "Shopper Beware"? For the Co-Op, make that "Shopper, Be Very Afraid". If you've checked out the letter and you like the product - or you aren't buying it - Open Letter is open to letters. Please include a real name if you wish to be considered for publication.


From Paul McCartney On The Occasion Of Your Latest Release to The Person Who Let Their Dog Defecate Near The Southeast Corner Of 58th And Kimbark, Cate Plys writes the Open Letters that need writing. Check out her entire collection.


Posted on November 28, 2007

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