Credit: Timothy Hughes

Anya Firszt, General Manager, Willy Street Co-op

What can you say about a 35-year-old co-op that thrived? That it was healthy and happy? That it loved bok choy, bulk beans and Beetnik juice....

When the Willy Street Co-op moved to its current location at 1221 Williamson St. at age 25, into a much-expanded space of 9,500 square feet with, at last, a parking lot, it seemed audacious. Now in retrospect the move seems modest, with the lot often full, the community room booked with everything from art exhibits to Kombocha-brewing workshops.

The co-op is no longer a fringe buying club for health nuts and hippies. Food consciousness has come around in the last decade to the extent that consumers who see themselves as mainstream care so passionately about the quality of their produce that they'll make a special trip here. Others want to support local agriculture or need an offbeat oil or spice for a recipe they pulled off the Internet. The co-op has done its own share of creating this shift in society. Yet it lets members dictate the products it does sell, so there's a symbiotic relationship.

"Buy local is our core message," says longtime general manager Anya Firszt. Moving forward, the question is: "How can we further develop that concept? From the agricultural side of things, we might be partnering with a farmer, or buying land to grow food ourselves."

The co-op looks not only to local farmers, but to other local vendors. And its prepared foods adhere to the same local philosophy, with the deli preserving tomatoes, for instance, so that they might be used beyond the growing season.

The co-op has just opened its second store, in Middleton. Firszt is gratified to see that Middleton residents were buying memberships to the new store before it opened, even though "they've never been to the east-side store."

At times she spies newcomers, folks who walk into the co-op looking "a little puzzled" but curious and wanting to learn. "Twenty-five years ago, I was that person," Firszt reflects. "When I see that, I'll give them the nickel tour."

With 20,000 member owners, it might be hard to think of the Willy Street Co-op as a small business. But, Firszt says, "We do work to satisfy everyone's needs."

- Linda Falkenstein