Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store Change Hands Upon Longtime Owner’s Retirement

 In Client Press Releases

Buyer is a dedicated staff member, committed to honoring the family legacy

FLORENCE / NORTHAMPTON—Richard “Rich” Cooper, whose family built and nurtured the quintessential Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store markets, announced today that he is selling the businesses to a dedicated, longtime employee who is committed to honoring the legacy.

A Florence resident, Cooper, 67, will retire this fall and sell the markets to Michael “Mike” Natale, 31, a native of Florence who now lives in Easthampton. Natale has worked at State Street and Cooper’s since 2006 in various roles, steadily rising into management and most recently serving as general manager. His father, five siblings, and a niece and a nephew have also worked at the popular, hometown convenience stores.

“Mike is a clone of me. He sees what I see. He knows what customer service really means, and he understands the importance of community. Mike has a great way with the employees and customers. He is enthusiastic, dedicated, and has long-term commitment,” said Cooper, who is known throughout the region not only as a competent businessman but also as a tireless community advocate, volunteer, and supporter of countless nonprofits. Cooper will work part-time alongside Natale for a few months after the sale as Natale takes over full ownership.

“Mike is the ideal buyer. This choice feels right to me,” Cooper added. “It meets the obligation I feel toward employees and to the community to keep the stores locally owned and locally committed, the way we’ve been from day one. I didn’t want to sell to a chain or the highest bidder or someone from outside the community.”

Between the two stores, there are 104 employees, most of whom live locally and work part time; roughly 40 work full time.

Cooper has been involved with the business his father launched his entire life. “As a young kid, I lived next door to Cooper’s Dairy, and I had various jobs,” he said. “I would load bottles into the bottle-washing machine, load trucks, hose down the floors, ride on the tanker truck to pick up the milk. My father worked long hours. He got up at two in the morning to make sure all the home delivery routes had been covered, and, if not, he went out on the route to make deliveries.”

Initially, though, Cooper did not intend to follow in his father’s footsteps. He earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising at the University of Florida and imagined he’d work for an ad agency in New York City. Following a brief stint in direct mail marketing with Channing Bete, Cooper turned to the family business in 1977 after a gentle invitation from his father, who was poised to retire.

Russell Cooper laid the foundation of the Cooper family business in 1936 when his boss at Bridgman’s Dairy, Federal Bridgman, wanted to retire. Cooper purchased Bridgman’s in Florence with a $5,000 loan from Smith Charities. He was 18.

Back then, there were as many dairies around the region as there are fast-food establishments today, and slowly, the Cooper patriarch acquired them, founding Cooper’s Dairy at 126 North Maple St. in Florence and processing, bottling, and delivering milk to a wide range of customers, including schools, restaurants, and homes. In 1950, Russell Cooper launched the more modern facility at today’s Florence location. 

Not long afterward, as more families began driving cars, customers were stopping at Cooper’s Dairy to pick up their milk, rather than waiting for the deliveries, and they began to ask for other staples—like bread, soup, and cereal. Office desks at the dairy on Main Street in Florence were replaced by grocery shelves as the space transformed into Cooper’s Dairyland. 

The store’s name changed roughly a decade later, as customers began referring to it as “Cooper’s Corner,” given its location at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets. The long-familiar sign with the whimsical messages, like “When you run out, run in,” went up at that time.

In 1974, Russell Cooper bought the State Street Fruit Store, informally known as Charlie’s, on State Street in Northampton. Soon, Douyard’s Barbershop next door was renovated to become State Street Deli, then State Street Wines & Spirits was constructed on the other side.

Russell Cooper and his wife, Evelyn, ran the stores together. Evelyn was trained as a nurse and had previously managed the maternity ward at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. She worked in the office, and together, the husband and wife mentored their three children—Rich Cooper and his brothers, Edward “Ed” Cooper and Ronald “Ron” Cooper—in all things business. 

All three sons were actively involved in running the stores until Ed passed away in 1996 and Ron in 2004; Rich Cooper has operated both markets on his own since, and he said the transition to solopreneur was the most difficult shift over the years.

“We were running ragged even as a threesome,” he said, noting Ed managed the finances of both businesses; Ron oversaw Cooper’s Corner; and Rich managed State Street. “I was grateful to have very dedicated employees, people like Will Pugliese, who worked as our general manager for many of those years. I also learned to delegate more, even though I am very much hands-on.”

Sole ownership has meant Cooper works seven days and nearly 70 hours each week; he considers Sunday a day off because he only works five hours, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

His tremendous dedication is seen in countless other ways. He is as likely to be cutting cheese, stocking produce, or unloading a delivery truck as he is to be balancing the books or brainstorming products and services. “I like the mix of roles that I have, having my hand in everything. I learned from my father that to run a small business successfully, the owner needs to be present,” he said. “I saw my father doing everything, too. In doing so, he was mentoring people around him, and they would absorb his work ethic by osmosis. I found that works for me as well.”

Cooper said he is proud of the improvements he has overseen over the years, including installation of solar panels at both stores and the $1.2 million expansion of State Street in 2008, which added a bigger deli, expansive patio, and a popular wine room to the downtown market. 

Likewise, he is pleased with the way the wine and spirits departments at both stores have expanded and been well-received. “We’re known throughout Western Mass for esoteric, small-brewery-type beers at Cooper’s Corner and fine wines and sought-after bourbons and scotch at State Street,” he said.

Cooper is also honored that, over the years, he has mentored hundreds of young people in their first jobs. “It’s important to train and encourage them so that they have a positive work experience,” he said. “It will make a difference in their lives.”

This mentorship aligns with Cooper’s support of nonprofits that focus on young people. He has been involved with Northampton Dollars for Scholars for many years as well as the Northampton Education Foundation, and he contributes to dozens of other nonprofits each year.

Like his father before him, he has also been deeply involved in other community endeavors, holding board and advisory roles with organizations like Florence Civic & Business Association, Florence Bank, Child’s Park, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, and city boards and commissions. 

As Cooper prepares to step away from the businesses, longtime customers are offering gratitude and praise.

Tara Brewster, a customer of Cooper’s Corner, said, “It has been a pleasure to know Rich and to witness how he has been involved in a wide range of conversations and organizations throughout the region. Cooper’s and State Street are steadfast supporters of many deeply rooted community events and that matters to me as a consumer and resident of Florence. Rich’s presence is quiet but known and he is always willing to lend a hand. A deep bow to you Rich Cooper, enjoy your retirement.

Another Florence resident, Maureen Scanlon, said, “Cooper’s tagline ‘When you run out, run in’ reflects Rich’s humility. He’s grown the store over the years to go well beyond that simple message. It’s not just about convenience—they are a primary grocery market for me, with food selections that are just plain impressive. As I often say, everyone should have a Cooper’s Corner. Rich has also had a generational impact on the community, both for employees and customers. My daughter grew up a Cooper’s shopper and remains so even now when she comes back from Queens for visits.”

Matthew Owen, a State Street customer from Northampton, remembers getting the Sunday paper and an ice cream soda at Charlie’s when he was a young boy growing up. In the early 1980s, he worked at State Street in the wine department. “It’s a rite of passage to work at State Street,” he said. “Musicians, engineers, and all kinds of people get their start there in the workplace. State Street brings the community together.”

“It felt like a family,” he added. “We all felt comfortable.”

Customer Jenny Fleming-Ives said, “Long before ‘Buy local’ was the watch word, Rich was buying local as much as he could. He was a model. And many of us appreciated that.”

Fleming-Ives also appreciates the dedication Cooper and his wife, Catherine Kay, have to the community. “They are pillars of all kinds of charitable good works. That’s the epitome of what a small business owner who is personal and committed to community can do.”

Cooper is excited about his retirement and does not worry about how he will spend his time. Travelling will certainly be a priority, along with golfing, volunteering and gardening.

“Maybe Mike will let me conduct some wine and cheese tastings for customers or, I suppose I could be a volunteer greeter,” he said, with a grin.

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