By EMILY McNALLY — Shoppers at Glut Food Co-op in Mount Rainier will find rows of bulk foods, bins of organic and conventional produce, locally made baked goods, natural soaps, and a grind-your-own nut butter station. They will be greeted by longtime employees who know many of the customers by name and by an eclectic store full of nooks and crannies to explore.
They will also find sagging and stained ceiling tiles, creaky hardwood floors worn down by years of foot traffic, and a cracked skylight in need of new glass at the co-op, which was founded in 1969 and moved into its current location in 1971. Behind the scenes, aging refrigeration systems are nearing the end of their life spans, and the shop is in danger of closing if it cannot fund the necessary improvements.
In May, the City of Mount Rainier’s Office of Economic Development launched a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for repairs to the store, according to Janee Williams, a business development associate with the city, who helped create the campaign.
“We all pulled together to make sure they stay open,” said Williams. As of early July, the campaign had received $4,450 of their $25,000 goal. Their fundraising page includes many enthusiastic comments from loyal customers who say they want to keep Glut in operation.
“We’re so gratified by the response from longtime customers,” said Chris Doyle, a Hyattsville resident who has worked at Glut for 43 years.
Doyle said that the store’s sales volume is down from $2.5 million in previous years to $1.5 million this year. In response, the co-op has cut staff, hours, wages and all benefits except for medical insurance.
“I’ve thought we were close [to closing] a number of times in the last year, but something always happens, and we keep going,” said Doyle, who noted that Glut received some equipment from the food co-op at the University of Maryland when it closed earlier this year. “I figure if we make it through the summer, we’ll make it through the next year.”
Nichola Thompson, a Hyattsville resident who has worked at the co-op since 1988, said the store just received a long list of needed repairs and updates from the city’s code enforcement, including electrical upgrades and repairs to the ceiling.
“Since mid-2007, we’ve been on a steady downward financial slide, greatly diminishing our savings,” said Thompson. “Not many months during these years have we broken even. The economic downturn hit us hard, particularly as it was met with increased shopping options in recent years. Making the financial decisions to cut wages, cut hours, cut our small benefits … were met with reluctance.”
Judy Davis, who has worked at Glut for 38 years, said that the co-op has also had more competition in recent years than they did in the past, when there were fewer supermarkets in the area and even fewer that carried organic and bulk options.
“The area is no longer in a food desert,” said Thompson. “Increased choices for shopping, everyone’s time pressures, limited area parking — all these points have made our small business an endangered species.”
According to its website, Glut was founded by “conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War” and functions as a worker’s collective in which “workers control the assets of the business and decide jointly how the business should be organized and run.” The co-op also makes donations, often in the form of store credit, to local organizations focused on “environmental, peace and social justice movements.”
Thompson said that Glut offers things other stores often cannot, like a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan options, plus bulk items that customers can purchase in very small quantities. Davis notes that Glut carries some items not available at other organic markets, and emphasizes that what makes Glut special is the community it helps build.
She often sees people run into old friends, people they may not have seen for years, in the checkout line. Other people strike up conversations and make new friends in line and sometimes end up standing outside of the store, talking for hours, said Davis. She has even heard of a married couple who met at Glut.
“Almost every day, there’s a new customer. The customer relationship is so important,” said Davis, who greets many of the patrons by name and catches up with them as she rings up their orders.
“There are neighbors and others who travel distances to shop with us,” said Thompson. “Some customers are there almost daily.”
Judy Walsh-Mellett of Mount Rainier said she has been shopping at Glut since 1981. She recalled grabbing fruit leathers for her children to munch in their strollers while she shopped. Later, when her kids were teenagers, they got their first jobs at Glut and swapped the grocery credit they earned for cash from their mom, who would then use the credit to make purchases at the store.
“The community really loves Glut,” said Walsh-Mellett. “In some ways, it’s changed, but in the more important ways, it’s fundamentally the same.”
“There’s just something special about this place,” said Davis from behind the well-worn checkout counter. “There’s something spiritual about it.”