Northampton’s Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store a way of life for one city family

Daily Hampshire Gazette. February 21, 2015. Rebecca Everett.

When Northampton couple Richard Cooper and Catherine Kay work in their office above Cooper’s Corner in Florence, they sit beneath a black-and-white photograph, circa 1938, of Cooper’s father, Russell Cooper, hanging on the wall.

Clad in overalls, he is peering into a milk tank back when the family business processed and sold milk as Cooper’s Dairy. Soon after, when Richard Cooper was a child, the business became a small store selling eggs, bread and other groceries.

“Our first jobs were probably hosing down the floors as we were bottling milk, then bottle washing and boxing eggs,” Richard Cooper, now 59, said of himself and his two brothers. “That’s where we got into trouble, because we learned that it was fun to throw eggs at each other.”

The brothers, Richard, Edward and Ronald, would eventually take over Cooper’s Corner and the other family grocery, State Street Fruit Store, from their father when he retired in 1977. Though Richard Cooper lost his brothers and partners — Edward died in 1996 and Ronald in 2004 — the business is still very much a family affair.

Kay, 55, had a career as a lawyer and then a music teacher, but always kept a hand in the business. It became her primary job two years ago. The couple’s three children, Rebecca, now 21, and twins Benjamin and Andrew, 19, all worked at the stores while they were in high school and college — and Benjamin said he can remember helping stock shelves as a little boy.

Kay said that joining the Cooper family, she saw how central the business was and how well everyone collaborated to get things done.

“It’s been really wonderful to marry into a family business,” she said. “Seeing how the business grew and how the whole Cooper family was involved in the same enterprise was exciting.”

The business means long hours, working on holidays, emergency calls when something goes wrong, and fodder for endless dinner table conversation, but she said she doesn’t see much of a downside to a family enterprise.

“I haven’t seen it be a problem,” she said. “But one of the things that makes it work is having clear ideas of who is responsible for what. When Ron and Ed and Rich ran it together, they all had different responsibilities. They made the big picture decisions together, but they all had their own strengths.”

She said one of her nieces commented recently that running a family business is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.

“I think that’s really true, for better or worse,” she said.

Benjamin Cooper, who was home visiting from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, said his parents instilled in him a strong work ethic.

“I think it was in my mind from a young age,” he said. “Growing up, both my parents were so involved in this business that’s a 24-hour, always-on-call kind of thing.”

Cooper said his father started working at Bridgeman’s Dairy on North Maple Street in Florence when he was in high school. At the time, that meant picking up milk at local dairy farms, processing it and delivering it to people’s doorsteps.

Russell Cooper bought the business in 1936, and later bought out other dairy owners to expand the enterprise.

Cooper’s Dairyland moved to the current Cooper’s Corner site in 1956. It began to turn into a store during the following years, as the rise of automobiles meant people were picking up their milk instead of getting it delivered. Customers asked Cooper if he would sell a few other groceries, and he obliged.

Russell Cooper eventually sold the milk processing part of the business to Allstar Dairy of South Hadley. He opened a “dairy bar,” selling breakfast and lunch, on Bridge Road at the site that now holds Fitzgerald Fence. He made the ice cream at a facility on Market Street.

Cooper said his mother, Evelyn, a Brattleboro native who had been a nurse before her children were born, helped her husband run the business and took care of bookkeeping. His older brothers got involved in the business right after college — Ed took over bookkeeping and payroll, while Ron ran the dairy bar and took care of mechanical stuff, like fixing the trucks. Along with Russell Cooper, they bought State Street Fruit Store in 1974.

While his brothers jumped right into the family business, Rich Cooper said he dreamed of being an advertising executive. “I kind of had it in my mind that I wasn’t going to go into the business. I wanted to work for an ad agency,” he said. He worked in marketing for a year and then in 1977, his father told him he was thinking about retiring. He asked Cooper if he would consider running the business with his brothers. “I really struggled with it,” he said. In the end, he joined the business, a decision he feels was the right one.

The stores have evolved over the years. Both added wine and beer and delis, and they run a catering company out of State Street. Cooper said he has had to become an expert in all the different parts of the business, kind of like his father did decades ago.

“There are a lot of similarities in that I wear many different hats,” he said. “I remember him trying to fix electrical problems and then going out on a route if a delivery driver was sick.”

Cooper said it was difficult to lose his brother Ed in 1996, and it also took a toll on the business. “It was really sudden,” he said. “He had done the corporate book work, he was always in the office. We knew how important the accounting part was, so that was kind of scary.”

Ron Cooper’s illness gave the family time to plan. Cooper said his brother imparted a lot of his knowledge of the business to him before he died. “I still have a binder of notes from him,” he said.

Kay said that since then, managers have stepped up to take on more responsibility. Many of the employees have worked for the Cooper family for long stints, she said.

“The concept of a family business is family by blood, but it can carry through a whole group of employees,” she said. “They’ve been like family.”

Some of their nearly 90 workers are second generation employees whose parents’ first jobs were also at one of the stores. About 30 are full time, while the rest are part-time, including many high school and college students who are working their first jobs.

Benjamin Cooper said that during his senior year of high school, he would open the store before school, and he got to know a lot of the early morning regulars. “One of the hardest things about going off to college was not seeing them until winter break,” he said.

Cooper said he doesn’t expect any of his children to take over the family business, and at this point, he’s not thinking about retirement or what will happen to the store after that.

“I love what I do and I couldn’t do anything else, but there are easier ways to make a living,” he said. “And I like the idea of them following their passions.”

For now, he and Kay have their hands full running the two businesses.

While there are similarities between the stores, like the neighborhood market-vibe and their busy deli counters, State Street Fruit Store has become well-known for having hard-to-find items.

“We constantly have to differentiate ourselves. The niche for State Street was originally fresh fruit and vegetables,” he said, but now those things are easily available everywhere. Then, it became specialty and imported goods that customers couldn’t find elsewhere.

“You have to stay a step ahead of the game,” said Cooper.