The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America: A Book Review

by Amber on January 12, 2012

My mom and librarian, Karen Stott Bersche, is appearing once again as a guest writer. I like having her voice on these pages–after all, it was her voice that used to read books to me as a small girl, her voice who gave me my own. Her perspective on this book is particularly of interest, because my great grandma’s father lost his grocery store during the rise of the A&P in America.

My mom serves on the State Board of Illinois Rural Partners and the Board of RAILS Library System, one of two regional library systems in Illinois. She is Director of Towanda District Library. Her careers as Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, regional consultant at Illinois’s largest library system, entrepreneur, and teacher have shaped her life. She is co-author of publications on library involvement in economic development. In 2005 she was named to the Top 50 Library Journal Movers and Shakers, defined as the 50 librarians most impacting and growing the profession in the U.S.

Karen Stott Bersche, librarian & my mom

Here’s a book review from my fancy, librarian mom:

The Great A & P and the Struggle for Small Businesses in America by Marc Levinson tells the story of a corporate food giant and the path it took from a small business itself to the largest retailer in the world and finally to its own demise – a victim of the competitive forces it helped to unleash. The controversy and political challenges that dogged the chain store developer and supermarket innovator for a quarter of a century added the necessary tension to the tale. The colorful radio show hosts and politicians who championed the cause of the independent grocer contrasted clearly with the Hartford brothers who took ownership of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company in 1903 and turned it into the first retailer to sell $1 billion in goods by 1929. Disney could not create more animated “underdog” and “villain” characters than these!

The book shows how the chain store altered economic geography and how the process of moving goods from producer to consumer became impersonal and industrial, but also cheap and efficient – a job for the big, not the small.

Independent grocers were trampled in the wake of the Great A&P. Mom and pop stores could not match chain store prices, advertising campaigns, or gimmicks. However, the worry had less to do with price than with the survival of small-town America and local merchants. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce concluded in a 1928 study that “the death knell has been sounded for one-third of all retail outlets in the country” due to the growth of chains. The following decade of the Depression only magnified concerns and fueled political controversy and the public’s “love-hate” relationship with an impersonal shopping experience that helped them pinch pennies.

I read this book with great interest because my Mom’s father and his dad were independent grocers in Clinton,Iowa in the 1920’s – one of the 2.1 million Americans who earned their living making and selling food at that time. I felt their ambivalence and powerlessness as the book told me about shop owners in the South and Midwest who pushed political leaders to act against chains. Laws taxing chains and limiting their price slashing tactics were passed and then repealed at different points – in different states. I wondered how each of these political events impacted my family’s decisions in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

My mom’s family lost their business and their livelihoods during the Depression. I often wondered why my grandfather extended so much credit to his neighbors and customers – to the end that he could no longer pay his bills and keep his store stocked. The book assured me that extending credit was a common practice of independent store owners – while chain stores had strict policies against extending credit….cushioning them from the Crash of ‘29.

The book’s author provided enough historical data to satisfy my “can’t get enough of non-fiction” appetite. I like a lot of history and fact with my story!

Levinson saved his personal opinions about the virtue of innovation and change for the final chapter….objectively weaving the tension between the chain store/supermarket and the independent grocer throughout the book.

“For seven decades the collective and complementary strengths of George L. and John A. Hartford allowed their company to respond deftly to rapid changes in economic conditions, competitive circumstances, and consumer tastes.”

Part of me wanted to cheer for their repeated innovative achievements, but all the while I read the book, I was hoping for a twist of history that could have saved my family’s small grocery store and the opportunity for customers to know their grocer and food suppliers personally. Today my “Awake at the Whisk” daughter and I prefer a farmer’s market shopping experience and shun Wal-Mart shopping. The battle for customers’ devotion described in Levinson’s book rages on today!

The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America
by  Marc Levinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, First Edition 2011, $27.95, 358 pages

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

The Rowdy Chowgirl January 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I was just reading about the rise and fall of the A&P chain in a book about leadership called Good to Great, so this post was especially interesting to me. Thanks!


Amber January 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm

What a nice coincidence! My dad recommended Good to Great to me. I’ll have to check it out, too!


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