Small Co-ops Are Beautiful

Cover of the book 'Food Co-ops for Small Groups' by Tony VellelaOne of the most practical and useful guides written about running a bulk buying club was published many years ago under the title “Food Co-ops for Small Groups”. By ‘small’, author Tony Vellela explains that he means, potentially, just five or six people and not more than 30.

In the next paragraph, he succinctly nails the essence of a bulk buying club or small co-op:

“At its most basic level, a co-op collects individual orders for particular food items, combines them, and purchases the total quantity at bulk wholesale prices. The bulk quantity is then divided among the individuals. In this case foods, purchased collectively, are cheaper because co-op members have spent time not money.”

Vellela’s prose moves quickly and clearly in introducing his subject, all the time pointing to the dynamic and flexible nature of such small-scale co-operation. He emphasises that those involved can develop systems which suit their own specific needs and these can readily evolve as the group itself changes. Thus, much of the book goes on to set out variations, alternatives and considerations so as to deliver practical information in an accessible way. Some of the manual operations described can now be streamlined by computers and the Internet, but many insights can still be gained from a less technological era. And nothing has changed in terms of the ability of such small-scale projects to build community.

Though written in 1975, it is a book which has aged remarkably well over four decades and one I return to often. It comes out of an era in the United States when the emergence of food co-op start-ups could then be described as a ‘wave’, no longer just a countercultural ripple centred on universities and major urban centres. Today, thousands of food co-ops operate across the country, whether as bricks-and-mortar stores or in the small group format that Vellela describes. Thus, the food co-op idea is widely familiar in a way that has, sadly, never been the case in Ireland.

Overall, the book distills much wisdom and it can readily be sourced online through Biblio.co.uk, the online network of used book dealers. (Note: There is a Boycott Amazon campaign which extends to its Abebooks offshoot for second-hand titles).

About this site

This site aims to encourage and support the setting up of further bulk buying clubs and small food co-ops in Ireland by sharing the experience of individuals who have operated a ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model over a number of years. It is also keenly interested in the history of similar projects.