The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America is a pleasant to read history of one of the country’s bygone retail institutions. At one time, A&P ranked among the truly robust retailers in the world, maintaining the largest grocery chain in the country. Following the passing of its guiding lights, the company foundered and A&P slowly became a shell of its former self.
Marc Levinson does an admirable job of making this corporate tale an interesting one. Though occasionally chasing a stray rabbit or two not worth pursuing, Levinson often brings interesting tidbits to the table. Even his endnotes are worth reading.
From its founding as The Great American Tea Company by the reclusive and eccentric millionaire George Gilman, to the silent partnership and eventual takeover by George H. Hartford and later his sons George L. and John, A&P holds a distinctly American pedigree. Levinson follows the company’s retail transition of opulent tea houses replete with chandeliers following the Civil War to Spartan grocery stores around the turn of the century and beyond. Along the way he guides us through technological transformations such as improvements in cardboard boxes and tin cans which allowed easier transportation of foodstuff thanks to the newly finished trans-continental railroad.
Other companies make brief cameos, such as Kellogg Toasted Corn Flakes, National Biscuit Company (Nabsico), S&H Green Stamps, and grocer Barney Kroger’s competing chain. We learn of the great grocery transition from hardware-store bulk selling of products to individualized containers and brand names via extensive shipping routes from factories to towns. We learn how groceries made up the bulk of family budgets in the newly industrialized country, and how independent merchants prospered seemingly on every corner.
The death of independent grocers, in part thanks to relentless downward prices at A&P stores, makes up the bulk of ensuing conflict in this story. With the country’s crusades against monopolies and trusts, along with the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, several forces were brought to bear against A&P. Low prices were portrayed as a scourge, driving mom and pop stores out of business, a charge later repeated when Walmart gained retail prominence.
Ultimately, Levinson is not interested in promoting either an overly positive picture of George L. and John Hartford, who revolutionized grocery shopping for America and led their father’s company to prominence, or an overly negative one. He duly notes the corporate homogenization, factory farming, and retail blandness A&P helped bring to grocery shopping, but he doesn’t go out of his way to condemn these realities, either. On the other hand, he notes the brotherly team’s strong management skills, and documents their travails in fighting the forces arrayed against them. Over all, it’s a satisfactorily balanced approach.
The book is a nice read, and once begun you’ll probably want to finish it. That’s high praise for a corporate history. Buyers of the electronic edition will note only 62% of the title is devoted to the narrative, with the remaining 38% set aside for endnotes, bibliography, and index.
Four out of five stars