Early Oryana Recollections from the 1970s

  in Blog

By Oryana Owner David Poinsett

The initial public meeting to discuss creating a natural foods co-op in Traverse City took place in 1973 in the community room at Michigan Consolidated Gas Company office at 110 E. Front Street. Soon after that meeting a name was chosen, a board of directors was formed, and Oryana incorporated as a Michigan cooperative.

In the beginning Oryana functioned as a pre-order monthly buying club. There was no storefront. One or more members would drive to Ann Arbor to purchase bulk flour, grains, beans, peanut butter, etc., and bring it back to Traverse City. Third Level Crisis Intervention Center, then on 16th Street, was used as the monthly distribution place. Members would divide the bulk items according to the portion of their order.

In 1974 Oryana moved the monthly food distribution from 16th Street to a small, recently vacated building next Ace Hardware on West Front Street. Member volunteers operated Oryana for few hours each week to make the co-op more accessible, and take another step toward a possible full-time storefront.

Operation ended within a few months when the building was sold. Oryana's few assets (a fridge, some old wooden barrels, and a baby scale) were stored in the garage of a member who lived in the Slabtown neighborhood. I don't remember their name.

At that time in 1974 there were there were two other sources of natural foods in Traverse City. One was a traditional health-food store selling mostly vitamins, energy mixes, and small quantities of pre-packaged items. The other was Xipe' Natural Foods (ZEE-pay) at 415 S. Union Street. Xipe' sold bulk natural food items and local produce. They made fresh smoothies and nut butters. They sold organic foods and books about natural living. Although Xipe' was a privately owned for-profit retail store, it was a cultural predecessor to what Oryana would become.

My direct involvement with Oryana began in the autumn of 1974 when Tom Wilbur recruited me to assist him in moving Oryana's few assets out of the Slabtown garage and into two rooms on the second floor of 123 1/2 East Front Street. Over the course of a few car trips, and several treks up and down Oryana's long stairs, the new storefront took shape. The fridge, the old barrels, the baby scale, a small cheese cutting table, and some shelves looked sparse in those two rooms.

123 East Front Street was once the home of the region's newspapers, the Grand Traverse Herald and the Record Eagle. When Oryana moved in the street-level sections at that address were divided. Nolan's Tobacco Shop was on the left, and the Travel Adventure Bureau was on the right. The large upstairs area was also divided. A small shop selling spiritual books was above Nolan's, and Oryana was above the Travel Adventure Bureau. Both Oryana and the bookstore occupied the front half of the upper floor, and they each had big windows that faced Front Street. The back half of the second floor would soon be occupied by The Plant Gallery, a bohemian boutique selling plants and art.

Oryana re-started slowly at its new location on Front Street. Tom Wilbur and others made the trips to Ann Arbor to purchase bulk natural food supplies and bring them back to Traverse City. Each week Oryana was open a few hours depending on the volunteers available to run the place. Eventually Christopher Morey was hired as manager for daily operation.

One of the early epic endeavors was the acquisition of a large refrigerated display cooler from Long Lake Grocery west of town. They sold it to Oryana for next to nothing. All we had to do was get out of their building and into the second floor of ours.

The cooler was four times the size of an upright piano and heavy. It overhung the back of Lee Hatton's tiny pickup truck by a couple of feet, and its weight pressed the truck's fenders to within inches of the tires. While Lee drove so very slowly back to town, we all expected to witness some part of the truck suspension snap at any moment.

Arriving at the back of the Oryana building, we now faced an even bigger hurdle: getting the cooler up the long metal stairs at the back of the building without loss of life or limb. There was only a quarter inch clearance on the stairs, and we were uncertain whether the stairs would even bear such a weight. With pulleys and grit we hauled that cooler up inch by perilous inch. On its way up, the cooler gouged a straight shallow line in the bricks on the exterior of the adjacent Michigan Theater building (now Front Row Centre). It you look closely, you can still see it.

At some point around this time I finagled a questionably sanctioned residency at Oryana even though the building did not comply with city residency codes, and the Oryana board had not been consulted.

Here's how it worked. Chris would officially open Oryana in the morning, and then head out to do other things. Even though he was official the manager, I would stay and run Oryana for the rest of the day as a volunteer. At night, after Oryana closed, I'd sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag. (At that time, and for quite a few years to follow, the Park Place Hotel made their sauna and showers available to the public for $1. Those of us with modest residential resources and a commitment to personal hygiene used those facilities regularly.)

In the window facing Front Street I painted a rainbow capped with letters O-R-Y-A-N-A above and Food Co-op below, hoping that a symbol of an inclusive new beginning above Front Street might beckon people to trek up the Oryana stairs. It seemed to work.

A funny thing happens when you live and work at the same place. After a while it can feel like a prison. After several months of being at Oryana almost 24 hours a day, I needed a little distance. In the spring of 1975 I moved into a house on 8th Street with 13 other people. It was small-town communal living at its best, and it allowed me to stay involved with Oryana without feeling chained to the premises. (That beautiful big house on 8th Street, across from what is now Dakoske Hall, was built by early Traverse City merchant John Wilhelm in the 1800s. The house was eventually razed to expand the parking lot behind businesses at the corner of 8th and Union.)

Around that same time a new Oryana board was elected. Work bees were organized to restore the beautiful oak woodwork and wainscot panels that were hidden under layers of opaque paint. Chris Morey moved on to a new job, and was replaced by a team who took turns managing daily operations. That team included Mike Mikus, Linda Henry, Brenda Henry, and others.

Throughout 1975 and 1976 Oryana continued to prosper. Membership and daily sales grew. People from all walks of life were becoming part of Oryana. The management team was working well. All members were required to volunteer, and received a special discount on food purchases. Non-members paid an undiscounted premium. Oryana was also become a member of an alliance of Michigan food co-ops which operated The People's Warehouse, a natural foods distribution hub in Ann Arbor.

By early 1977 that wonderfully sunny picture of Oryana had dimmed somewhat. The bookstore was gone. The Plant Gallery no longer had art or plants for sale, and at night had come party central. The management team had dwindled. Oryana oversight was nil, and none of us knew just how bad things had become until the day after the big robbery.

It was so easy to avoid what happened. Empire National Bank had a branch directly across the street which made nightly deposits very convenient, though apparently not as convenient as stuffing Oryana's daily cash and checks into a plastic bag, and shoving it into a bucket of dried beans in plain view of the nightly party crew. As we later found out, that routine was followed for many months until some needy soul returned one night when everyone was gone, took a crow-bar to the second-floor back door, and helped themselves to the bean bucket bank.

Because nightly deposits were not being made often, cash would accumulate. The amount taken was likely between $1500 and $2000 although it was uncertain because record-keeping was apparently also an significant inconvenience. For Oryana at that time, that cash was just about all the working capital it had. Among other things, losing it meant canceling a pending order for food supplies since there would be no money to pay for it. Rent payment and utility payments would soon be due.

It did not occur to us that a fundraiser or reaching out to potential donors might be a smart next step. Instead, we just felt crushing disappointment, betrayal, and doom. We loved Oryana. We believed that wholesome food and natural living could change the world, and that food co-ops like Oryana were a good way to make that happen. Now it was all about to end, at least for Oryana.

Perhaps it was the power of youthful idealism converging with a profoundly inexpensive lifestyle that made me reach out to the Oryana board of directors. I offered to quit my existing job, and go to work for Oryana to do whatever I could to get it back on its feet. With nothing to lose, the board said yes.

I paid myself $1 an hour. I worked 60 hours a week. Instead of selling everything in bulk, I started pre-packaged the more expensive non-staple foods like figs and dates and cheese, and added an extra markup to the price. I budgeted every purchase literally to the penny, balancing the purchase of luxury items that would help us make up our lost funds while staying committed to providing staple foods at affordable prices near cost.

Oryana owed the Michigan Federation of Food Co-ops membership dues which we could not afford, and because we were behind in payments, we also paid a premium to The People's Warehouse for food along with a past-due surcharge to the Federation. (They were completely unsympathetic to our situation.) Oryana desperately needed to catch up financially as soon as possible.

At the end of the first year I filled out the federal tax forms myself. (This was another example of not having the good sense to reach out for some free assistance which I'm sure some generous professional would have provided.)

Along with the tax return I included a hand-written note explaining that due to poor management there were no records for the first three months of the year, and that the income and expenses stated for that period represented the most fair and honest estimate I could make. Oryana's gross income was about $15,000. My letter was as naïve as it was sincere. My great fear that the IRS stomp its foot on our fragile endeavor was unfounded. I never heard a word from them about it. In all likelihood, it gave a few people at the IRS a good chuckle.

Over time Oryana inched forward, slowly caught up, and started regaining its momentum. Interest in natural foods continued to grow. More and more people were coming to realize the benefits of a wholesome daily diet. Parents wanted good food for themselves and their children. Oryana had become THE source of natural food in the region, and was becoming known for its quality, selection, and its friendly atmosphere.

Oryana was also growing its connection with the community as a member-owned cooperative. Even though farming co-ops and credit unions operate with similar rules and principles, the cooperative business model was not widely understood or visible. Oryana emphasized that distinction, and that, too, appealed to people.

By the end of 1978 Oryana was thriving. With debts repaid and sales up, we had enough money to hire part time staff, and pay them a normal wage. (I still paid myself $1 an hour.) Things were humming, but for better or worse, I was burned out. The long hours and countless evenings spent unloading and carrying 1500 pound deliveries of food up Oryana's long stairs finally caught up with me. I needed a break.

Oryana has been mostly lucky over the years. So many people have contributed so much good will and so much hard work toward creating the Oryana we know today. When I arrived on the scene, those who came before me set the stage for what would be possible. I could not have made my contribution without them or the many friends and co-op members who helped me.

When I parted with Oryana as an employee, the organization was in good hands. Oryana staff included Debra Trowbridge, Becky Mang, and soon-to-be general manager Mike Williams. The Oryana board included community visionaries Bob Russell and Sally Van Vleck. Together they facilitated the move from Front Street to Randolph (now Bay Bread) with a loan from the National Co-op Bank. (Oryana was the first food co-op in the country to do so.) They started the Oryana tofu and food service operations, a wonderful annual banquet, and a long list of things that strengthened both Oryana and our community.

Countless good deeds and achievements have happened since I worked at Oryana two generations ago. Every time I am in the store, I marvel at all that has transpired. Oryana has been steadfastly dedicated to wholesome food and living, good citizenship, good stewardship, and good works. It was always a dream that those strong and gentle ideals would be widely shared in our community and beyond, and they have, but there is still much more to do. Cooperative endeavors succeed when people work together toward a common goal. That is Oryana's foundation and its lasting strength. That is its past, present, and future. I cannot wait to see what Oryana accomplishes next.