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Is the Barneys Co-op breaking the law — with its name?

The Brooklyn Paper
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The venerable Park Slope Food Coop has fired a shot against the fancy-schmancy Barneys Co-op, saying that the department store slated to open later this year on Atlantic Avenue has illegally coopted the word “co-op” — and one lawyer says the supermarket may actually have a case!

Joe Holtz, the general manager of the famously left-leaning, members-only grocery store, has gone public with his concern that Barneys’ “misuse” of the legal term “co-op” is a violation of state law.

Holtz cited an article in the state’s Cooperative Corporations Law — variously described by two lawyers as “arcane,” “antiquated” and “obscure,” but state law nonetheless — that could possibly serve as a legal basis for a David v. Goliath showdown.

“The term ‘cooperative’… or any abbreviation, variation or similitude thereof, shall not be used as, or in, a name except by a corporation defined in this chapter,” the law states. “Any cooperative corporation may sue for an injunction against such prohibited use of the term.”

Holtz, who made his objection clear in a letter to this newspaper this week, indicated that Barneys’ use of the term muddles the very definition of co-op and, in doing so, undermines the 37 years of effort made by the Park Slope Food Coop to essentially brand the idea of cooperative shopping.

“Barney’s misuse of the word dilutes this effort and effectively undermines our business model and, for lack of a better concept, ‘brand,’” said Holtz.

If found guilty — by whom is not even clear right now — the multi-million-dollar fashion company would face a stiff penalty under state law.

“A violation of this prohibition is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $500,” the law states.

Besides, it’s not clear if the Food Coop will pursue the matter.

“I would say I haven’t decided yet,” Holtz said, but he is definitely considering it — on principle: “It’s a new thing having a co-op in Brooklyn that’s not a co-op. There is something wrong with that.”

A spokeswoman for Barneys, Dawn Brown, scoffed at the notion that their boutique stores is in violation of the law.

“The year 2010 will be our 25th anniversary since opening the co-op,” said Brown. “We’ve been using this phrase for a long time.”

And, Brown added, the term “Barneys Co-Op” — the name that the company gives to spinoff stores of its more-familiar, high-end Barneys locations — is trademarked.

“We’ve gone through all the legal channels to have this name,” she said.

But one lawyer with expertise in corporation law — who did not want to have his name tied to his quick, pro-bono consultation with a reporter on deadline — said that the trademark did not necessarily nullify a Park Slope Coop legal challenge.

“You can’t claim rights to something that is illegal,” the lawyer said. “Can you trademark something that violates the law?”

The lawyer noted that the law in question was designed specifically for food producers, marketers and consumers.

“It’s there so that a co-op corporation — such as the food co-op — not be confused with other corporations such as business corporatio­ns,” the lawyer said. “[The food co-op] is a different type of corporation and that’s the reason for the prohibition.”

He also noted that it is quite possible that the reason Barneys has never caught flack for its “co-op” stores before is because no other food co-op has taken exception with it.

“Only a food co-op could bring this case. There might not have been anyone who objected before,” the lawyer said.

But he did say there is one catch: there could be a statute of limitations that nullifies any challenges to Barneys Co-op simply because the term has been used for so long.

It is unclear whether the Food Coop, which serves as a spiritual center of Park Slope, will pursue the matter. This newspaper could not reach Holtz before its non-cooperative online deadline.

In the end, it’ll be up to the lawyers, the judges and the court of public opinion. But consider this: State law appears to be on the foodies’ side:

“It is the declared policy of this state, as one means of improving the economic welfare of its people, particularly those who are producers, marketers or consumers of food products, to encourage their effective organization in cooperative associations for the rendering of mutual help and service,” the law states.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 9, 2018: Updated with a new detail from Holtz.
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Reasonable discourse

j mork from p hts says:
Haha. Maybe i'll get my co-op apartment building to sue Barneys!

But seriously -- there's no way the Food Coop is going to spend money to defend its "brand" against a clothing store with a lawsuit. How much in monetary damage do you think we (I'm a member) would be able to demonstrate?
April 15, 2010, 8:05 am
John from East Williamsburg says:
"Ostentageous" ? Is that a hybrid of ostentatious and advantageous?
April 15, 2010, 9:28 am
Richie rich from parkslope says:
Co-op retards
April 15, 2010, 10:03 am
Rocky from South Brooklyn says:
"Spiritual center"? You've got to be kidding me.
Gersh, your guys take too much from the guys who pees in office sinks, that Post editor.
April 15, 2010, 10:21 am
Any Mouse from Any Where says:
Someone needs to revise that stupid State law to make its intention clear. Free the term "co-op" from the oppressive shackles of captivity.
April 15, 2010, 10:38 am
M from North Brooklyn says:
What a bunch of food coop d-bags
April 15, 2010, 11:13 am
cooper from park slope says:
Sounds like some of you negativos need some spiritual guidance. Sorry, though, orientation is booked through 2014.
April 15, 2010, 12:47 pm
John from East Williamsburg says:
The statute of limitations does not grandfather you into immunity for a continuing illegal act. The law regulates the use of words like "Kosher", "Dentist", "Fat Free" to protect the public.
April 15, 2010, 2:04 pm
Toni from Florida says:
Don't you guys fact-check, or at least proofread? Flack should be flak. Coop or co-op, pick one. Barneys or Barney's, one is incorrect, find out which. As to this "issue," what a waste of time and money!
April 15, 2010, 5:01 pm
sid from boerum hill says:
maybe they should change their name to barneys co-opt...
April 15, 2010, 10:44 pm
Marky from Park slope says:
No Joe,
What undermines your business model is you and your members. Not barneys. The only reason the park slope coop exists at all is because people in that particular neighborhood are hungry for another excuse to act smug. Let's be honest, this isn't the bushwick food coop,
There is no great social benefit to what you are doing... This is simply a way to run a marginally less expensive store for rich folks without having to pay any employees.
In this economy, I'd say the coop model in a major city is a burden more than a service. Stick to your own BS and leave barneys 25 year old brand alone. They are actually helping their employees pay rent and afford healthcare, and their discounts are better than yours.
April 16, 2010, 6:47 am
Jerry Salinger from Park Slope says:
It's Park Slope Food Coop (check the sign) and Barneys Co-op (check the website). My reading of the story is that there's one typo — from Holtz's letter itself.

Stop hating, everyone. The Brooklyn Paper does a pretty good job, you know.
April 16, 2010, 7 am
Janet from Park Slope says:
If some coop members who are also lawyers can prosecute this lawsuit to fulfill their work requirement, I'm all for it. It's too bad nobody noticed when Barneys misused a term (which is defined in NYS law) because they were marketing to the Manhattan smug, and also too bad that only a few leftist New Yorkers are familiar with the history of the cooperative movement. To the rest, it's just the reason for that annoying shareholders meeting at your building every year.
April 16, 2010, 7:21 am
Comrade from Coopville says:
@Marky from Park Slope,

Hate much? Were you tossed out by the disciplinary committee? Why the anger? You can't eat Dolce & Gabbana, no matter what the discount.

And I'm with Janet -- we have plenty of lawyer/members who could pursue this suit.

The Park Slope Food Coop rocks -- Viva la Revolucion!
April 16, 2010, 8:42 am
Vincent from Carroll Gardens says:
PSlopers! Always got something to complain about. It's like you think your customs are Godsends. Pitiful and backward too!
April 16, 2010, 8:46 am
Fourth Estate from DUMBO says:
I have worked at the co-op and I am poor. You idiots defending Barney's are a joke. This is a greedy corporation trying to steal a label for which it is not. I am sure many of you also voted the idiot back into office.
Crime is up, both on the street and in the corporate offices. Enough already with these corporations having more rights than people.
April 16, 2010, 10:55 am
Fourth Estate from DUMBO says:
Sounds like Marky missed his shift and didn't like the fact that he would have to make it up.
April 16, 2010, 10:57 am
We're #1 from Park Slope says:
Read it and weep, Vincent from Carroll Gardens. New York Magazine named Park Slope New York City's top 'hood, and we all know it's probably the best neighborhood in the entire world, too. IN YOUR FACE!
April 19, 2010, 12:17 pm

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