By Walter Griffin

Special to the Midcoast Beacon

BELFAST — The Belfast Co-op celebrated its 35th year providing the community with healthy, locally raised and crafted products recently with its annual Customer Appreciation Day.

Hundreds of residents jammed the downtown and filled the store’s parking lot to listen to a mix of local bands, sample products and enjoy the sun and fun at the annual event. Just as the co-op was appreciative of its customers, they voiced appreciation in return.

“I’ve had more than 100 people come up to me and say how glad they are that we are here and to thank us for a great party,’’ said general manager Ron “Goldie” Goldstein. `”We’re all about local, local, local and they are too.”

From its humble beginnings in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, the co-op has evolved into a significant and welcoming presence in the downtown. While its first incarnation represented a member-based cooperative staffed by volunteers that tallied $40,000 in sales in its first year, today’s co-op has 60-70 full- and part-time employees with gross sales approaching $6 million and is open to all, Goldstein said.

The co-op provides its employees with access to medical and dental insurance, IRAs, life insurance and discounts on foods. It also offers a wide range of educational programs and workshops to the community throughout the year. The co-op also brings its programs into the local schools.

“That’s the kind of stuff we really like to do. Not just give people a place to get organic foods and goods but to make it a community gathering place,” Goldstein said. `”We’ve got something going on all year-round.”

The co-op’s reputation has spread far and wide across Maine and it long ago earned its place as one of the handful of downtown Belfast retail establishments still in business years after their beginnings. Only a local fuel company, cafe, diner, theater, furniture store, bakery and shoe have been in business longer on the downtown block.

The event also featured a health fair, book sale, humane society and animal rescue displays, all-natural grilled sandwiches and chicken wings along with vendors offering breads, vegetables, ice cream, baked goods and animal treats. Proceeds from the fruit basket raffle and book sales are donated to local charities.

“We’re having this customer appreciation day so that our staff and board of directors can thank the community for supporting us throughout the years,” Goldstein said. `”We do this day not to make money but to say thank you to the community.”

The co-op has grown over the years from its original 1976 location in a narrow downtown storefront, to its relocation to a double-front on lower Main Street 10 years later, to its present location in a former A&P store on High Street. The first store had 800 square feet of floor space, the second 2,500 square feet and the current location established in 1993 is 6,000 square feet. Throughout the years, the co-op has always focused on its mission of providing healthy, locally grown food.

“We have a chart over the door telling people how much local food they can get at any given time,” Goldstein said. “If our chance is to buy local, even if it costs us more, we buy local. We’re here to make money and stay in business, but not at the expense of our values or our local farmers and growers.”