Short History of Cooper’s and State Street

In the early 1900’s there were dairies all over Northampton, almost the way there were gas stations all over town in the 1960’s. Our father, Russ Cooper, worked for Bridgman’s Dairy in Florence while he attended Northampton High School in the 1930’s. When he was 18, Dad recognized that combining these small neighborhood dairies would make running the businesses more efficient. With a loan from Smith Charities, he bought Bridgman’s and began processing milk at the dairy at 126 North Main St. in Florence. He soon bought other small neighborhood dairies, which he consolidated into a modern facility on the corner of Main and Chestnut streets in Florence.

Dad picked up milk from Hampshire and Franklin county farms and pasteurized, homogenized, and bottled it at Cooper’s Dairy. He then delivered it to homes, stores, schools, and other institutions throughout the two counties.

My mother recalls the dairy days of the early 1950’s, when there was no market for low fat milk, so after the cream was skimmed from the whole milk, the resulting skim milk was dumped down the drain! I vividly remember our father getting up at 2 or 3 a.m. to begin his day and not coming home until suppertime. I also remember Cooper’s Dairy getting a lot of recognition for having what I think was the state’s first female “milkman.”

In the mid 50’s, as cars were becoming more common, Dad noticed that more and more of his home delivery customers were stopping at the dairy to pick up their milk. They were asking if he could start carrying bread and cereal as well. He obliged, and part of the office became devoted to grocery shelves. This was the start of Cooper’s Dairyland and an early example of one of our core values: customer responsiveness.

In the late 60’s the dairy part of the business was sold to All Star Dairy of South Hadley, and we concentrated our efforts on retail. Mom and Dad had three sons, and as each of us graduated from college, we joined the business, assuming full responsibility and ownership upon our father’s retirement in 1980.

In 1974 we bought State Street Fruit Store, which had been informally known as “Charlie’s,” from the Composeo brothers, who had started it in the 1930’s. We connected Douyard’s barbershop to the main building and renovated it to become the State Street Deli. A few years later we built on to the other side of the Fruit Store, creating State Street Wines & Spirits. In the Spring of 2008, as a major national recession was unfolding, we started construction on a $1.2 million expansion and renovation to the State Street stores. “Bold, gutsy, crazy” were some of the comments I heard, but when all was the work was completed in the winter of 2009 and we had a bigger deli with a beautiful patio and a fantastic wine room which doubled the size and total sales climbed like never before, “congratulations, right move” were the comments.

My father passed away in 1984, my oldest brother Ed in 1996 and Ron in 2004. I continue to expand the business with the help of our great managers, Will, Judy, Rebekah, Peggy and Wesley, and longtime dedicated folks like Liz, and Mark, and Barb. Today we have grown to 98 employees (including one “volunteer,” my mother, Evelyn). Staff members are split pretty evenly between State Street Fruit Store, Deli, Wines & Spirits in Northampton, and Cooper’s Corner in Florence.

That core value of customer responsiveness has been demonstrated in major ways over the years. In the early 80’s we were supposedly the first store in Massachusetts to ever scratch State Lottery vending. Although there was a waiting list for stores that wanted to be authorized to sell Lottery tickets, we found that our customers didn’t like having to wait behind people who were scratching tickets or trying to decide which numbers to play, so we stopped selling Lottery tickets. In 1983, when Massachusetts passed the Bottle Bill creating mandatory deposits on beverage containers, it met with great opposition from retailers across the state. We saw this as an opportunity and advertised heavily “Return to Us. Bring us your deposit bottles and cans.” We were flooded with customers — and bottles and cans! — and hired a whole crew of disabled people through Incentive Community Enterprises to be sorters.

In June 2000, we made the unprecedented move of turning in our Cigarette Retailer’s Licenses to the Northampton Board of Health. We had struggled for years with the incongruity of being personally against cigarette smoking on one hand and providing a product that a segment of our customers wanted, on the other. When my 6 year-old daughter, Rebecca, asked at dinner one night why we sell cigarettes when they are bad for people, my response was that we try to provide products that our customers want. When I heard myself say it, it had such a hollow sound.

That decision, which my business colleagues criticized as being economically foolish, turned out to be one of the best moves we have ever made, both morally and economically. Customers came in as never before — old faces, new faces, smokers, and non-smokers, locals and out-of-towners. Many came with words of praise and congratulations and stories of personal and family battles with cancer. To this day, years and years after those cigarette displays came down and those hundreds of packs were destroyed, customers still remark about the bold decision and about the business people who put what’s right ahead of what’s profitable.

—Rich Cooper