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Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store Change Hands

Rich Cooper passes the baton to longtime staff member Mike Natale

Whether you live in the area, or you’re simply passing through, there’s a good chance you have patronized Cooper’s Corner for a quick grocery trip or grabbed a sandwich at State Street Fruit Store. Owner and Proprietor, Rich Cooper, a Florence resident, is retiring this year. With 80+ years of tradition, the community can breathe a sigh of relief, as he is selling the markets to longtime employee, Michael “Mike” Natale. 

Mike is a native of Florence and now lives in Easthampton with his family.  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 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. 

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.

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. 

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. 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.

Cooper said he is proud of the improvements he has overseen over the years. Likewise, he is pleased with the way the wine and spirits departments at both stores have expanded and been well-received. 

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.”

As Cooper prepares to step away from the businesses, longtime customer, 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.”

Cooper is excited about his retirement and does not worry about how he will spend his time. Traveling 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 says, with a grin.

  • Mike Natale & Rich Cooper