The Inner Sunset Community Store, a throwback to the days of hippies and flower power, lives by one motto--"Food for people, not for profit.”
Political posters and bumper stickers cover the walls. “Free boxes” stand near the door; people drop off clothes while others select items.
Near the window, there’s an alcove filled with toys and books to entertain children while their parents shop. Nearby, there’s a section for information on subjects ranging from holistic hypnosis to trips to the Himalayas.
In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, about a dozen such stores were formed in San Francisco to sell politically, economically and environmentally “correct” goods. Today only four, including the Inner Sunset store, remain.
But they are just as devoted to bringing customers such unusual, but healthy, products as pesticide-free produce, dog food with wheat germ, and natural toothpaste.
These “stores with a conscience” are part of a nationwide, informal network of collectively run health stores, food co-ops and buying clubs devoted to bringing customers high quality, affordable goods.
Although no state or national figures are available, Geoph Kozeny of San Francisco’s Collective Networker Newsletter said there are at least 166 collectives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We have (accounted for) less than half the local groups and we don’t have a tenth of what’s in California,” he said.
Each store in San Francisco has kept most of its original flavor, but each also has developed its own distinct style. And although it’s not a motivating factor, the stores have come to realize the importance of money.
“Before, people used to pay with food stamps,” said Rita Hurault of the Inner Sunset store. “Now, they buy more packaged goods, pay with checks and ask if we take MasterCard or Visa.”
The 10-year-old Inner Sunset store, located near Golden Gate Park, was one of the last to get into the movement. It has 12 full-time workers and is the most outwardly political.
A group of volunteers held garage sales to raise the initial funds. Alternative wholesale businesses like the People’s Bakery, Red Star Cheese and Left Wing Poultry “loaned” the store goods with the understanding that they would be repaid little by little.
The store refuses to carry meat and tries to avoid products by large corporations and multinationals, especially if they do business in apartheid South Africa.
“It’s a delicate balance we all have to try and walk, between what the customers want and what we feel is right. Others are more like a mom-and-pop store run in a collective way,” Hurault said.
She said the store has a devoted clientele. When they first opened, they collected about $200 a day. Now they take in $2,500.
“We remind them of a time when they could buy one orange,” she said of the regulars. “It’s attractive because it’s not impersonal. The sense of community we have here really helps.”
The other three stores--Other Avenues, Noe Valley Community Store and the Rainbow Grocery & General Store--also have strong support in their respective communities.
The oldest and the smallest is the 13-year-old store in Noe Valley, which has six full-time workers.
It looks like any corner health food store, and one employee, Tiona Gundy, admits it used to be more political. But it is now much more business-oriented “because of the times, as much as anything else.”
One of the mom-and-pop type stores is 12-year-old Other Avenues, just few blocks from the Pacific in a residential neighborhood.
To survive, the store has to carry what neighborhood families want. So they sell Boudin Sourdough bread and imported beer along with chemical-free vegetables, organic chickens and turkeys and dog food with wheat germ.
“Once you break the barrier, people start asking, ‘Why can’t you do that all the time?’ ” said one of the store’s 14 employees, Barbara Reusch. “A good bulk of the population eats meat and fish. The bulk of us are vegetarians. So it didn’t really matter so much to us as it did to the customer.”
The 11-year-old Rainbow Grocery & General Store is by far the largest, using two of three stories in a large pinkish building in the ethnically diverse Mission District. It has 83 workers.
The grocery houses a small wholesale cheese business and a natural food deli. Employees encourage clients to recycle bags and plastic or aluminum and they trust shoppers to correctly weigh and mark the items they buy.