From modest beginnings as a tea shop in New York, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company became the largest retailer in the world. It was a juggernaut, the owner of nearly 16,000 stores and dozens of factories and warehouses. In1929 it became the first retailer to sell $1 billion in goods in a single year. But its explosive growth made it a mortal threat to hundreds of thousands of mom-and-pop grocery stores.
Main Street fought back tooth and nail, enlisting the state and federal governments to stop price discounting, tax chain stores, and require manufacturers to sell to mom and pop at the same prices granted to giant retailers. In a remarkable court case, the federal government pressed criminal charges against the Great A&P for selling food too cheaply - and won.
The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America is the story of a stunningly successful company that forever changed how Americans shop and what Americans eat. It is a brilliant business history, the story of how George and John Hartford took over their father’s business and reshaped it again and again, turning it into a vertically integrated behemoth that paved the way for every big-box retailer to come. George demanded a rock-solid balance sheet; John was the marketer-entrepreneur who led A&P through seven decades of rapid changes. Together, they built the modern consumer economy by turning the archaic retail industry into a highly efficient system for distributing food at low cost.
Marc Levinson has a gift for discovering business history stories that cut to the heart of how industries are transformed. He did so brilliantly with the award-winning The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, which was short-listed for the 2006 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
©2011 Marc Levinson (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“What a splendid book! The rise and fall of A&P provides a rare window into the American experience.” (Robert J. Samuelson, columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post)
I listen to a lot of historical nonfiction, so I don't call a book like this dry lightly. And maybe there's no better way to write something like this. But unfortunately the book ends up being just painfully dull. The origins of corporations turn out just not to be as interesting as those of military or religious movements or whatnot. So we learn that as of such and such a year, one of our protagonists owned a business selling teas on a certain street, where records show there were many such businesses, and an advertisement lists the address as a more prestigious location around the corner from where the actual entrance was according to maps, and the teas were mostly sourced from various conventional distributors but were being repackaged and marketed as more exotic, etc. Just really dry.
I'll admit it: I gave up. Maybe it becomes a lot more interesting. I hope so because I may come back to it at some point. The book raises really interesting issues. This was a period of time when the nature of businesses was changing greatly. There used to be a large merchant class of independent store owners; today we take for granted that most of our retail experiences are with large faceless corporations. Maybe a broader survey could make this point without getting too bogged down in minutiae. But then, maybe that would be boring for lack of interesting characters and specific events.
Unfortunately, as is, I just can't recommend anyone pick up this book.
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