I walked into the Health Department in Bisbee’s old county building and told the woman at the desk I needed a health permit.
The woman called to the health inspector, Arnold, and he came out to meet me and schedule an appointment.
Arnold introduced himself and asked what kind of business I’d be opening. “A little grocery store,” I replied. “I opened a few weeks ago.”
The look of shock on his face would’ve made me laugh except I realized something very serious was happening.
Arnold sputtered and even flapped his arms a bit. “But you have to have the permit before you can open! Tell me where the store is. I’ll be there on Monday. What time do you open?”
“It’s at 7 OK Street, and I open at nine,” I told him.
“See you then.” And he headed back to his office shaking his head.
Arnold’s was the first act of kindness. As I later learned, he could have marched right down and closed the place.
I’d opened my little grocery, the Bisbee General Store, a few weeks previously. I had approximately zero business sense and an equivalent amount of experience running a store. I’d had no idea I needed a permit. I’d simply opened.
Just over a month previously, I learned my grandmother had left me a small amount of money when she’d died. $2000. In 1973, that was the most money I’d ever had—and it would continue to be the most for many years.
I decided I wanted to open a little shop and asked people around the community what it was the town needed. Almost to a person, people said they wanted healthy food: grains, beans, whole wheat flour, herbal teas, etc.
Note: When I speak of “the community” here, I refer to Bisbee’s newcomers, the artists and hippies.
The one thing I knew about food was the bulk 50-pound bags couldn’t sit on the floor as they did in Mexico. Sacks of flour, beans, sugar, and salt sat right on the floor of the little market I shopped in across the border.
I bought 55-gallon garbage cans for the bags to sit in, and some friends built a little raised area of 2x4s and plywood. Another act of kindness.
I zipped up to Tucson and got old catalogues from the food co-op there and once back at home, I called a few places in Phoenix and placed my first orders.
In under three weeks, I’d opened my store, and it was a few weeks after that when I’d met Arnold in the health department on a Thursday afternoon.
On Friday, I opened the store as usual and put out the word that the health inspector was coming, and I needed help on Sunday making the place sparkle.
People showed up off and on all day. Windows were polished inside and out. The bathroom was scrubbed. Shelves were dusted and the offerings creatively displayed. Walls were washed down and the floor was mopped.
By around two o’clock, the place really did sparkle—as much as an old worn shop could sparkle, anyway. Amazing community support and kindness.
I showed up Monday just before nine, secure in the knowledge that my little store would easily pass inspection. Three customers were waiting for me, and I saw Arnold walking down the hill from the health department, clipboard in hand.
I unlocked the door and as I opened it, a dog went charging in.
On top of that, the overnight winds had blown out a high window. There were glass shards all over the shelves, grain bins, and floor. Dust and leaves had blown in the open window and were swirling about.
And Arnold walked in.
And the dog ran up to greet him.
The inspector looked around, dazed. “I think you’ve got a little work for this place to pass inspection, ma’am.”
He walked about, checking things off and making notes on a form. In just a few minutes, he tore off the top sheet and handed it to me.
“Just fix these things up, and I’ll be back on Thursday.”
I looked down the checklist. He’d only marked the obvious: dust and debris on shelves and floor. No mention of the glass, and no mention of the dog.
Again that Monday, I spread the word. A short time later, someone appeared with an extension ladder and measured for the new window. He tacked some cardboard up to keep more dust and leaves out.
The same young guy returned the next day and installed the glass. No charge. Kindness indeed.
And the angel cleaning crew showed up again, ridding the shop of all traces of leaves, dust, and glass. And of dog fur.
On Wednesday at close of day, all I had to do was a light dusting and sweeping to be ready for Arnold’s Thursday morning visit.
This time, I opened the store to a clean shop. Arnold showed up within half an hour, again prowled the place with his clipboard, and made little checkmarks on a sheet.
“Congratulations!” he said with a grin. “You can now open your store.”
He handed me the top copy and pulled out an official health department permit for me to post on the wall. Then he gave me a warm, friendly smile and walked out the door.
About six months later, after working morning and evening shifts as a waitress while keeping the store open all day, I knew I couldn’t go on working seven days a week.
Monday through Saturday, I’d waitress most days from 6-9 am, open the store, close it at five, and waitress from about 5:15 until 9 or 10. On Sundays, the store was closed but I often waitressed an eight-hour shift.
“What should I do?” I asked Maxine.
“Turn it into a food co-op,” she replied.
A week later, about forty people met at the store. We all sat on the floor and talked of how to create a co-op. Within a few hours, we’d drawn up an agreement. For cost of inventory, I’d sell the store to “the people of Bisbee” and payments would be made over time as proceeds allowed.
Someone wrote up the agreement and everyone there signed it. The Bisbee Food Co-Op was born.
The co-op later incorporated and kept that wording: The Bisbee Food Co-op was owned by the people of Bisbee.
People stepped forward, helped weigh all the grains and inventory the stock. They drew up a semi-formal contract, handwritten on a clean piece of paper, outlining the debt and how it was to be paid.
The co-op remained the heart of the community for many years. And that community grew to encompass many more than just the artists and hippies who once organized it into a successful store.
Over forty years later, the co-op eventually died a slow death due to mismanagement. But it never would have been here in the first place without a lot of community support and kindness.