Friday, January 6, 2012

The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, by Marc Levinson (author), William Hughes (reader)

Blackstone Audio, ISBN 9781455114658, August 2011

When I was a child growing up in Everett, MA, there was, on Broadway, a little supermarket called A&P. It was bigger and had more selection than the convenience stores in the neighborhood, but smaller than McKinnon's, which has since gone on to bigger and better things, but not, as it turns out, anything like the size and reach that A&P had even in its decay, in that decade of the sixties when its glory days were past. McKinnon's is a quintessential local chain in the best sense, with high quality, excellent service, and unique offerings not found in the national or big regional chains. A&P in its heyday was something different, something I could not have imagined from that dingy little store inferior in every way to McKinnon's, except that my mom liked their 8 O'Clock Coffee.

A&P was, for over forty years, the largest retailer in the world, the retail behemoth that made its competition tremble, Wal-Mart before Wal-Mart. And they reached those heights from a start as a tiny little tea retailer in New York City in the 1860s.

This is more than the story of the rise, triumph, and decline of the Great Atlantic &  Pacific Tea Company. Levinson gives full attention to the economic and social impact of the changes in American food retailing exemplified and in many ways driven by A&P. Under the leadership of founder George Gilman and his eventual partner George Hartford, the company grew from a tiny little tea retailer to the first grocery chain. Hartford's sons, George H. and John A. Hartford, made it the largest grocery chain, experimented with economy stores and then with "combination stores" that included meat counters and hired butchers. The growth of A&P, along with other chains such as Kroger and Safeway, reduced inefficiencies, cut costs, made possible lower prices to consumers.

In the process, of course, they threatened the network of independent grocers, local food wholesalers and food jobbers, butcher shops, bakeries, and other small, locally-owned businesses that had been how Americans fed themselves.

Levinson is clearly an admirer of A&P, but he lays out clearly the good and the bad of the expansion of the chains. The vast number of tiny local groceries and small local wholesalers and jobbers made food very expensive; Americans were paying as much as a third of their income to put food on the table, and while that expenditure got them adequate calories, those calories were low in nutrients. Without refrigeration and without the ability to move produce from one part of the country to another, fruits and vegetables were in low supply. Most goods were bought by the grocers in bulk, and measured out and packaged up for shoppers. Quality was often low and adulteration was common. The expansion of the chains squeezed out unnecessary costs, improved the transportation of food, helped create packaged, branded food products which, though it far from guaranteed higher quality, made it far more possible as a goal. The cost of food fell substantially, while quality and variety and the overall nutritional value of Americans' diets improved.

The other side of the coin is that all those small businesses provided jobs, livelihoods, status, and opportunity for rural, small town, and urban Americans. They helped to develop local civic leadership. In the cities, there were alternatives, but in the small towns, the loss of those opportunities was a real threat. Opposition to chains as a threat to treasured American values, self-image, and economic opportunity developed early, fueled in part by legitimate concerns about real social costs. As the Depression hit starting in 1929, that opposition grew, driven by local fears, and the concern that wages and prices should not fall too much, lest the Depression grow even deeper. The perceived economic threat of the chains was deeply felt, and A&P, the largest of the chains, became the primary target. The company became the target of multiple investigations, together with state laws designed to tax the chains out of existence. In part because of those investigations, the history and internal workings of A&P are unusually well-documented

I've barely scratched the surface of this book. This is a fascinating story, and The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company is well worth getting to know better.


I borrowed this book from a friend.