INTERVIEW – While his documentary Food Coop is released on November 2 in theaters, director Tom Boothe, also co-founder of La Louve collaborative supermarket in Paris, was in Grenoble on October 24th for a preview screening and debate. The event organized by L’éléfàn non-profit organization – the first collaborative supermarket in Grenoble – gathered nearly 280 people at Le Club movie theater. Meeting.
TOM BOOTHE IN BRIEF
From Indiana in America, Tom Boothe studied filmmaking in university. He discovered Park Slope Food Coop in New York while visiting : “I had some friends that are members there.”
Back in Paris where he lives, he decided with his fellow friend Brian Horihan, also living in Paris, to create La Louve collaborative supermarket, based on the same pattern as Park Slope. “We don’t make a lot of money and we like to eat well. There wasn’t anything in Paris that works for us like that. So we decided to try to make that supermarket here”, he explains.
TOM BOOTHE : “PEOPLE ARE HUNGRY FOR SOMETHING ELSE”
What is the concept of the Park Slope Food Coop?
This is what we call in English a member-worker coop. It is a cooperative, that means it is not for profit. It is also a cooperative structure where the people who shop at the supermarket are the owners and literally the shareholders, they buy shares in the coop. But then the thing that’s kind original about it, that kind of structure has existed for a long time in Europe, in the United States.
They also ask all of the people there to work basically three hours a month to do the cash register, to do stocking, to do cleaning… for a couple of reasons. One, because it makes it feel for people like it’s really “their” supermarket.
If they just contribute money, it’s quite abstract but there, it’s up to them to make sure that the floors are clean, that the cash registers are working, then they really feel like owners. Kind of second side effect of that : it lowers the price. They still have some paid employees, about eighty at the Park Slope Foop Coop in Brooklyn, but it represents about 20 % of the staff. The rest of the work is done by the members.
There, a lot of people say it is the best single place where you can buy, in terms of quality, food in New York City, and the prices are half price. It is 50 % less expensive, 20 %, it depends on the product.
In the film that I just made, we made a study with a typical family you can find at the supermarket. The dad is an elementary school teacher and the mum works for an association, they have one kid. They saved 250 dollars a month by buying the exact same products at that coop as to buying them in another supermarket. So it is a pretty attractive model.
Your documentary highlights the advantages of this system: recreating social links, pooling volunteers’ skills to make the structure work … Should we expect the same thing about La Louve in Paris?
Our work is pretty good already on that plan, we found that out because we are doing one thing that the Park Slope never did which is we are opening a really big supermarket all at once.
They started little, they got little bigger, a little bit bigger. We started with a 1,500 square meters supermarket. Constructing that is a huge job and so we had to call all kinds of people for their skills.
We have electricians, plumbers, lawyers, firemen… Every time we have asked for a skill, we got it.
In your opinion, why is Park Slope Food Coop that successful?
We are in a weird situation historically speaking because since the beginning of civilization, the market place is the social center of social life, of culture […] that doesn’t exist anymore. Nobody would think about spending the whole day just for the fun of it at a supermarket because they are horrible places.
When you take out certain things, the fact that where I buy my food belongs to somebody else for whom making money is the main goal, not making sure that I eat well or that my health is good. Also when you take out the huge amount of marketing that we are used to, there’s always the marketing in the packaging of the product which is in the store, the horrible little announces of women singing, the adds…
You take that stuff out and all of a sudden people discover they would like to spend time in that space. […] When I talked to hundreds of people at the Park Slope Food Coop, 99 % of them love their coop. Few others are indifferent.
You ask them why. Knowing that the prices and the food are so incredibly good, almost all of them say it is the “ambiance”. It is a pleasure to go there, to talk with people who are not necessarily your best friends but you get to know people, people get near each othe and get married. For a lot of people in New York that supermarket in the center of their life.
How do French people feel about this model?
It’s amazing in France how quickly [it develops]. We don’t communicate, we have never encouraged another group in a city to start up a new supermarket, we don’t have time. And every three weeks, somebody contacts us because they hear about us and they want to try to do this model themselves.
In America there’s only one of them and it works really really well, the others are little ones trying to start and they’re having a hard time.
But I think the fact that number one French people are really attached to food and eating, that means this could be really strong here.
And the second thing is people don’t like sometimes the Park Slope Food Coop because they consider it a “socialist” supermarket, which is, was a very bad word in America, that’s also changing. In France, that’s not a problem.
I think definitely people are hungry for something else. There almost nothing in the world that’s going right and this is something that you can do.
Which is great is that it is not just a consumer [behavior] it’s not just “I try to buy the right products”, here you can do something with a little more effort, you can do something to really, asbolutely take control that aspect of your life. And the thing that I see especially with young people in their thirties and twenties, it gets them in a really positive sense, a sense of power like “We are doing it really well and it’s not that hard actually”. I think it’s a really important thing and it gives people some hope, of that small part of their lives at least.
Interviewed by Alexandra Moullec