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The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America Hardcover – August 30, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 75 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America
“Mr. Levinson has written an absorbing history of one company’s amazing rise—and what such success means in a nation with conflicting ideals about big business. It is more than a rich business history; it is a mirror to our own conflicting wants and visions of who and what we should be.” —The New York Times
“Mr. Levinson writes engagingly, and he exhibits no overt political brief. Anyone with a common-sense grasp of business practices will find the author's points clearly and fairly presented.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Levinson, who has burrowed deep in the archives, makes this story clear and compelling—and shows why A&P was both a boon to consumers and, in the words of an FDR-era federal prosecutor, ‘a gigantic blood sucker.’ Shades of Walmart?” —The Atlantic
“[A] book about a by-gone era that I enjoyed was The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson. It is about the rise and fall of the A&P grocery chain, once the largest retailer in the world, with 15,000 stores, and renowned for its high quality and low prices . . . But this is more than an economic story. It is a human story about a family that dedicated itself to making its business the best it could be—and how the death of the last member of that family was followed by A&P’s decline into oblivion.” —Thomas Sowell, Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy, Hoover Institution
“[A] superb business study and an entertaining read.” —The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)


“The fleeting nature of success in business—even for companies that revolutionized their sectors—is among the many useful lessons of this book. A&P’s legacy is apparent every time we set food in a modern grocery store, even if the company itself long ago fell victim to many of the forces it unleashed.” —The News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)

“Levinson makes it read like a novel . . . A great study of responding to the need to adapt to market and economic pressures to survive.” —Booklist

“This is the kind of masterful business narrative that explains both the past and the present in an illuminating new light. Marc Levinson’s highly insightful story of A&P—and its opponents—is essential reading for all those who seek to understand the love-hate relationship Americans have with the oversized consumer economy of our own day.” —Nelson Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business

“What a splendid book! The rise and fall of A&P provides a rare window into the American experience—not just the creation of the world's largest retailer but the transformation of a nation dominated by small shops and local merchants into one of massive chains, well-known brands, and aggressive discounters. The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America shows that even the largest corporate goliaths are not immune to the insistent forces of competition and change. No one could have told this riveting tale better than Levinson—a historian, journalist, and economist—whose crisp and compelling writing makes the narrative’s rich detail always run smoothly.” —Robert J. Samuelson, columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post

Praise for The Box

“A classic tale of trial and error, and of creative destruction.” —Virginia Postrel, The New York Times

“A marvelous read for anyone who cares about how the interconnected world economy came to be.” —Neil Irwin, Washington Post

About the Author

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang (August 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809095432
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809095438
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #354,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James Gallen VINE VOICE on July 31, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"The Great A & P" drew me in for several reasons. It brings back nostalgia. As a child I made many visits to A & P in "Shop City" in East St. Louis. This book gave me the chance to learn the story behind the grocery, the Nancy Anne Bakery goods, the Eight O'Clock Coffee and other products that I saw so often. It brings something for the Trivia enthusiast. Now, when we are urged to buy cloth bags to the grocer, did you ever wonder when and why grocers started using paper bags? According to this book, it was because the cotton for cotton bags became unavailable during the Civil War. As a history buff I found the social and political history aspects intriguing. The narratives concerning the shift from full service to self service stores reminds me of my mother's story about having to wait at a store in Belleville while the clerk served adults and how her grandmother took her back and gave the clerk a tongue lashing about the disrespect shown to her representative. As a student of business I found the case study of how A & P became the world's largest retailer and then fell to having only a regional presence and the attempts to legislatively suppress chain stores to be very interesting. The sections dealing with anti-trust prosecutions provided a brief refresher course on topics I had not considered much since law school.

The story of A & P is a great one. Founded as a tea importer it gradually grew and morphed into a chain of grocery stores, manufacturing businesses, food wholesalers and, eventually, supermarkets. As in any business, management had to decide what to offer the customers: credit and delivery or neither, but low prices.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book interested me because I remember when the local A&P was "my" childhood grocery store. I never knew where it came from or why it disappeared. This book
reveals the inside story (as much as it can be traced since the company was fanatically secretive) from its murky origins before the Civil War, the development of its corporate culture as a company that wanted to sell the largest possible volume of groceries, and the failure of its leadership after the family that ran it for nearly a century was no longer in charge. After successfully reinventing itself four times and fighting off state and federal government's attempts to
destroy it, lack of innovation killed it off.

I had no idea it was the largest retail sales company in the world for so long, until it was surpassed by Sears in the 60s. But there was something about the place that seized the imagination when I was a child, much like Howard Johnson's.
The color scheme, the homeyness, the cleanliness were all fascinating.

The book also opens up the development of American commercial history for the last
century and a half, and the struggle between small, personal, local and VERY inefficient) businesses with larger chain stores. There were hundreds of thousands of tiny "Mom and Pop" grocery stores on every corner, each selling very few goods, in bulk, with no perishable meats or produce. There were also thousands of local food processors, wholesalers, etc., so that
food was expensive, and nutritious food was not easily available. A&P seems to have had a mission to drive down food costs to drive up their volume. It also created modern American agribusiness and food ways.

The author definitely seems to find the A&P very sympathetic and those who tried to control or destroy it to be misguided and irrational.

If you want to understand Walmart, you need to understand A&P.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I suppose one could gather from the title that this isn't a history of A&P to the present day. Even though the company is still officially the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company and even though there is still a struggle for small business in America, this is really about the A&P's heyday, during which it was accused of trampling Main Street, much as WalMart is accused of doing today. It's a fascinating story and one that is not often told these days. (There is nothing new under the sun.) But it might have been instructive to hear more about A&P's downfall. This narrative essentially ends in the 1960s, when its downfall was underway, but we don't hear much about its retreat back to New England and its eventual bankruptcy, from which, as of this writing, it has yet to emerge.

Again: fascinating and recommended, but leaves you wanting more.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I can still remember going grocery shopping with my parents at the local A&P. This was in the late 60's and early 70's, and I can still smell the familiar aroma of fresh produce and 8 o'clock coffee as the automatic doors (a novelty) swung open. There were larger grocery stores opening in the area, but that would have meant a much longer drive (maybe a mile), so my parents stuck with the local A&P.

Because the store was smaller than some of its competitors, I have never really appreciated the size of the A&P chain. However, as Marc Levinson points out, they were easily the WalMart of their day. Much like the Arkansas behemoth today, in the middle part of the 20th century, the A&P chain was every bit as feared by small business owners who couldn't compete with the A&P on size, logistics, bargaining power with suppliers and marketing muscle. Many congressmen took on the A&P to limit its size and scope.

Levinson details the history of the A&P, from its start selling tea to its rise and fall as America's predominant grocer. While involved in some slightly questionable marketing in its early days, for the most part the chain was run above the law and as a fair and conscientious employer. Even when politicians, pandering to the "small businessman' nearly legislated the firm out of existence, A&P initally employed few lobbyists and spent little time worrying about politicians. When it was finally awakened, A&P learned to play the politics game as well as anyone.

Therein lies the problem. The A&P was a well-managed, law-abiding corporation that wanted to compete based on its business and logistics acumen. Even worse, it was, for the most part, run by a group of the world's most boring super-rich moguls.
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