The Books of 2017, #2: The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, by Mark Levinson

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When I was very, very young, the A&P was our corner grocery. Since we didn’t have a car, we walked down to that A&P a lot. It quickly converted into a Butera and now is a Supermercado of some sort, but I remember the A&P logo on it most strongly.

When I mentioned I was reading this book to a buddy about 10 years younger than me, it was made clear that he had never even heard of A&P. Given that A&P was the world’s largest company for 43 straight years, I find this kind of amazing. They were the Wal*Mart of America for a very long time.

So I grabbed this book when it popped up on my radar. In The Great A&P, Mark Levinson does yeoman’s work in describing how A&P came to occupy such a domineering position and why they fell so hard, so fast, that adult Americans today can credibly say they’ve never heard of them even though there were thousands of A&P stores across the country in living memory.

Telling this story is complicated by the fact that a) A&P wasn’t a publicly-traded firm and b) the men of the Hartford family who ran it were notoriously private. Therefore, I can appreciate the archaeology the author had to do to bring this story to light with any level of detail.

The rise of A&P in the late 19th and early 20th Century consumes the first half of the book, where the reader is given a lovely look into the frankly disgusting world of pre-refrigeration grocery selling. A somewhat predictable tale of effective utilization of economies of scale plus advertising mastery thus follows, with the rapid advances of transport and refrigeration technologies playing a strong role in the changeover of America’s food shopping habits from being primarily conducted at tiny corner stores run by independent owners to the chain store-dominated landscape we’re all too familiar with today.

Where the book gets particularly interesting is in the government’s rather persistent attempts to curb A&P’s growth, if not destroy them outright. Thanks to one particularly stubborn Southern Congressman who made his nut latching on to the issue of chain stores being bad for America (just in case you thought idiot populism was something new in our culture…), A&P found itself fighting the Federal Government from about 1930 through to the Eisenhower presidency nonstop. And while I’m generally in favor of strong government regulation of just about everything (because almost all entrepreneurs are also raving psychopaths who should be prevented from having unlimited funds to push their agenda in all possible arenas but I disgress…), Levinson makes a very, VERY strong case that the government’s arguments against A&P were entirely baseless from any economic or consumer-protectionist perspective.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, both for the history aspect of how shopping for food, something every person has to do on a regular basis, changed over time, with a lot of that change pushed by A&P’s innovations in its own business in ways that quickly reverberated through all retailers of food in the country. I further enjoyed the bizarre history of the government’s attempts to take A&P down for literally being TOO GOOD for consumers, by lowering prices too much. It’s a clear case of the kind of almost vindictive government overreach that leads far too many people to assume that ALL regulation is bad, and is precisely the sort of thing those of us who believe in strong but careful government regulation need to look out for.

The last bit of the book covers how, after finally putting the government’s crusade against it to bed, mostly successfully, a change in previously-entrenched leadership quickly led to the rather rapid demise of America’s largest chain. While those of us who have been living in the Age of Disruption (rolleyes) are unfortunately used to seeing legacy industries with tens of thousands of workers suddenly go under in disturbingly quick fashion, A&P might’ve been the first to go through this process, and it did so before Silicon Valley was around with its life mission of murdering traditional companies for profit.

I would’ve liked for Levinson to spend more time on this process, but it’s presented more as an epilogue to the story than an integral part of it. I guess it would be hard to spin a dramatic, engaging narrative out of bad managers consistently making wrong little decisions (and avoiding making any big ones) day after day for years until younger, more aggressive and more nimble competitors are eating your lunch and you go under.

So, in the end, I can recommend this book to anybody interested in the various topics covered within. It’s a deep look at a by-gone era of American business and government, with a side order of weird, private bachelor dudes running a company together for many, many decades with very little in the way of outside input and doing it damned well. Levinson obviously saw something uniquely American in The Great A&P and told that story here well.