Background to the Archives

Cooperative Grocer and Cooperative Grocer Network, 1985–2019

Cooperative Grocer was published from 1985 to 2019, and its archives comprise a unique reservoir of professional insights, stories of food co-op innovation and success, and contributions by several national associations that have led this co-op sector. This introduction to the archives briefly summarizes the magazine's history and that of its final sponsor, Cooperative Grocer Network (CGN).

In 2019, CGN assets were transferred to Columinate, also a cooperative. To introduce these archives, Columinate manager Mark Goehring said: "It's an honor for Columinate to host and provide access for all who are curious about how we got here. Dave Gutknecht deserves high honors for his commitment and dedication to the cooperative movement during this time."

Food co-op trade magazines

The new wave of food co-ops that arose in the 1970s had a few important models among the prior generation of consumer co-ops, but it faced weak regional and national associations. Under the wing of annual Consumer Cooperative Alliance conferences, in 1978-79 new wave food co-ops formed the Alliance of Warehouses and Federations (AWF) and published Moving Food. This bi-monthly trade magazine, edited by Dave Gutknecht, appeared beginning in fall 1979 and ended during a period of consolidation among food co-op distributors. The AWF and Moving Food folded in early 1985; by this time its remaining co-ops had joined regional co-op associations from the prior generation in a final attempt to maintain the CO-OP Label grocery line.

In that transition year of 1985, leaders at Northeast Cooperatives saw a strong need for a trade magazine for retail co-ops; they then hired Dave Gutknecht as its editor. Two dozen regional and national cooperatives joined to sponsor Cooperative Grocer, and after that the bi-monthly magazine provided a vital link among leaders and allies of North American food co-ops. Its pages, with articles written by practitioners in the field, featured shared challenges, operating practices and governance lessons, and promoted greater cooperation among co-ops. Its many years of enhancing such collaboration helped food co-ops overcome their independent and often isolated development, laying the groundwork for regional and national associations that strengthened the whole cooperative system and its many parts.  

After one year working under Northeast Cooperatives, Gutknecht returned to Minnesota and assumed full publisher and editor responsibilities for Cooperative Grocer. He maintained those duties for the next seventeen years, most of those during a lengthy stay in Athens, Ohio, while also generating additional published studies and launching the magazine's first website and online food co-op directory. He transferred ownership of Cooperative Grocer to the National Cooperative Grocers Association in 2002. NCGA had grown out of regional Cooperative Grocer Associations that the magazine itself had helped foster and had featured in annual reports.

Also during the 1990s, the annual CCMA conference served as a launching ground for deeper sharing of resources and communication among food co-ops. Twenty years after first forming their first trade association, U.S. food co-ops launched Cooperative Grocers' Information Network (CGIN), with extensive online shared documents and discussion. CGIN incorporated as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt trade association and operated as a cooperative, holding its first membership meeting in 1998. Karen Zimbelman was hired as manager, and CGIN participation and resources grew rapidly. Then, in a consolidation of food co-op sector leadership following its first decade of operations, CGIN transferred its services and management to NCGA.

After 2002, when Gutknecht sold Cooperative Grocer to NCGA, publishing was managed by Triangle Park Creative, a communications firm in Minneapolis with strong ties to the food co-op sector. Following this move the magazine design, professional presentation, advertising revenue, and circulation all improved. Additionally, in 2011 CGIN also transferred its management to Triangle Park Creative, and Cooperative Grocer publisher Dan Nordley became executive director of CGIN.

Alphabet soup: CGN, NCG, and Columinate

In 2012 CGIN embarked on its own growth plan, and NCGA agreed to transfer ownership of Cooperative Grocer to CGIN.  NCGA rebranded as National Co+op Grocers (NCG), while CGIN shortened its name and initials to Cooperative Grocer Network (CGN).

Cooperative Grocer published a bi-annual "Retail Cooperative Operations Survey" during its earlier years, a project which helped give rise to ongoing in-depth data sharing through new services, CoCoFiSt and then CoMetrics. The magazine also helped foster professional consulting and training, including CDS Consulting Co-op, a group which included many contributors to the magazine. From small beginnings in the 1990s, this association of co-op veterans, led by its manager Marilyn Scholl, grew to maintain a substantial presence in strengthening food co-op training, board governance, retail management, human resources, and more. After a rebranding in 2018, it became the Columinate of today. Its founding manager, Scholl, was succeeded by Mark Goehring.

The 33 years of Cooperative Grocer magazine and the 20 years of CGN were marked by ever-greater mutual support and professionalism among its constituent co-ops. Published content in the magazine's final years was as solid as ever, reflecting its continuing role as food co-ops grew in both scale and skills. But internal co-op growth as well as stronger market competition led to increased pressure on food co-op resources as well as a decline in magazine advertising revenue. The publisher was carrying the CGN/Cooperative Grocer business at a loss, and by 2015, when Ellen Michael took over as CGN executive director, all these challenges were growing. In early 2019 both the magazine and the organization folded.  

For a summary by Dave Gutknecht of an activist career, published in Cooperative Grocer in early 2019, see "Fifty Years of Scribbles and Screeds" in the archives. After CGN wound down its work, the CGN assets, including Cooperative Grocer archives, were transferred to Columinate, where they now are housed.

To round out the picture, a little more than two years later I was pleased to begin working for Columinate as a copy editor, and in spring 2022 became its lead editor.

—Dave Gutknecht