Out at the edge of the Western United States, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to dozens of unique, cooperatively-owned businesses.
California has long engendered hopes and dreams of epic proportion and lured prospectors seeking wonder and wealth. In the 1840s the world heard a rumor that gold lay in California’s northern hills. Cooperatives played an inextricable role in the survival and success of the individuals who flooded the area. This cooperation started with the wagon trains that brought settlers and miners across the continent and continued as the people claimed plots and started new lives. Shoemakers, carpenters, foundry workers, laundresses, farmers and other laborers and crafts people organized into cooperatives as the shanty towns grew into cities. Cooperatively-owned and managed businesses continued to prove crucial to the many subsequent waves of immigrants that have arrived from around the world. Today, new industries adopt this old business model. Well over a century and a half after the Gold Rush, the Bay still bustles with people seeking wealth and prosperity. In the culture of quick money boom and bust, cooperatives represent a desire for the wellbeing of all and provide a key to fulfilling and sustainable lives for many new and established residents.
We took a trip around the bay, chatting with coop members and taking photos. While we did not find actual gold, we did uncover a number of organizations that have wrought success out of California’s physical, social and economic landscape. The following images depict just a few of the many organizations that thrive in this region.
ADOBE BOOKS & ARTS COOPERTIVE
Both a bookstore and an art gallery, Adobe provides a nurturing environment for artists of many disciplines.
Dedicated to good coffee and good community, this cafe encourages neighbors to come and linger, share space and ideas while enjoying tasty beverages.
ARIZMENDI ASSOCIATION OF COOPERATIVES
Delicious pizza. Racks of cookies and breads. The mouthwatering aromas wafting out of the Arizmendi Bakeries pull customers off the street and into the lines that continually stretch back from the counters. Besides the artisan baked goods, the successful cooperative happily provides training and support to other businesses in the area.
Though the company has grown quite a lot since 1924 and you can now find Ace Hardware stores around the world, each location is still individually owned and responds to the needs of its neighborhood. This particular store, Handy Handyman Hardware, sits on busy Market Street in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco.
BERKLEY FREE CLINIC
Founded on the principal that healthcare is a human right, the Berkley Free Clinic has provided services since 1969. No patient has ever been asked to pay for these services, a highly unusual experience in the US.
Worker-owned BioFuel Oasis is a gas station for the ever increasing number of vehicles that run on biodiesel. From collecting used cooking oil to teaching community members about the benefits of this emerging energy source, the women that run (and own) Biofuel find crucial ways to integrate themselves into the community.
BOX DOG BIKES
Friendly and knowledgable, this shop sells and repairs bikes. Box Dog Bike’s five owner-workers and the coop’s employees are avid supporters of the Bay Area’s ever growing bike culture.
CITY ART GALLERY
Offering gallery space and community to dozens of visual artists, City Art is proud to offer membership to both established and emerging artists.
MAYBECK HIGH SCHOOL
Teachers democratically run this small high school. The structure ensures that educators, instead of administrators, direct classroom management and curricula.
Inkworks Press has been producing high quality posters, pamphlets and other printed materials since the 1970’s when Berkley, CA became known as a hub for activists. With an eye on environmental concerns, the shop provides elegant, engaging materials for social justice organizations and non-profits.
Not far from University of California-Berkley’s campus, Nabolom Bakery has served up delicious, environmentally-concious treats for thirty-seven years.
MODERN TIMES BOOKSTORE COLLECTIVE
Dedicated to radical political ideology, Modern Times Bookstore offers a rare collection of writing on politics, history, cultural identity, philosophy and other disciplines that encourage patrons to question and act.
A massive cooperative that does very well on a small scale in the Bay Area, REI is a household name for sporting and adventure equipment.
SUIGETSUKAN MARTIAL ARTS
Merging traditional martial arts with an untraditional business structure, the Suigetsukan Moon Reflected on Water School teaches several martial arts. Upstairs from the Dojo, some members live in cooperatively organized housing.
Fixing computers and building networks, the members and employees of Tech Collective provide support to individuals and businesses in the Bay Area.
Opened nearly 30 years ago, Rainbow Coop is a tasty, healthy staple for San Francisco’s residents. Coming through the sliding glass doors, shoppers find isles and aisles of organic foods and helpful employees engaged with sustainable and socially consciousness food production.
Story and Photos by Kathryn Kruse and Erik Strahm
- From the New York Times Magazine, Who Needs a Boss? “Arizmendi and its five sister bakeries in the Bay Area are worker-owned cooperatives, an age-old business model that has lately attracted renewed interest as a possible antidote to some of our most persistent economic ills.” Read the story.
- Listen to “Co-ops Under Capitalism” on the strengths and limitations of the cooperative model, from Against the Grain, a program about politics, society and ideas from KPFA Radio, 94.1fm Berkeley CA and online at KPFA.org.
- Stories.coop story 467 Why a Worker Cooperative? about the forming of a worker cooperative in Madison, WI (USA).