- Cornering the Market: Independent Grocers and Innovation in American Small Business by Susan V. Spellman
In 1930, the first US census to include retail store numbers counted more than 300,000 grocery stores. Eighty-three percent of them were operated by independent entrepreneurs, not chain-store organizations. This staggering number of stores suggests the formidable task that Susan Spellman faced when she set out to study the role of independent grocers in the United States: how to study such a vast number of small businesses that left few traces to document their company histories? Given the varied regional dynamic of the food trade, how does one understand the role of independent grocers in the diverse local communities where they did business? Following the tried-and-true methods of social history, some might take a case-study approach, perhaps achieving a regional framework by comparing grocers in specific cities or small towns from different parts of the country. Undaunted, Spellman established a national scope for her study and an expansive time frame to understand the growth of the grocery trade from the Civil War through the 1940s. The result is a long overdue examination of the role independent grocers played in modernizing the food trade.
Business history has routinely emphasized the enterprising role of large firms—national chains like A & P and large manufacturing companies like Ford Motor Company—as the chief architects of a modern American capitalism centered on mass production, national distribution networks, and marketing innovations. In this narrative, the small grocers Spellman studied too often appear to be irrelevant for understanding the development of new business practices that standardized methods of selling or, at worst, backward resisters of change. Often the picture of so called "mom and pop" stores conjures nostalgic scenes of pickle barrels and pot-bellied stoves, wistful longings for times that moved at a slower pace, and stores that served local communities in contrast to a contemporary world of global conglomerates. Spellman successfully overcomes the forces of sentimentality and top-down stories of corporate innovation to recast independent grocers as important agents of modernization. It turns out that many of the innovations attributed to corporate giants were initially introduced in the corner store.
In order to make these small business contributions visible, Spellman shifts the focus away from economic measures of productivity that make independent grocers appear inefficient compared to chains and toward business practices that show how small grocers were among the first to adopt new retail technologies such as the cash register. She takes a creative approach to a variety of sources that enable her to build a national picture without losing sight of the local context of the stores she studies. Letters, diaries, and ledgers of merchants and traveling salesmen offer grassroots perspectives of the role these small business men played in building regional and national trade networks and new business practices that favored efficiency, scale, and price control.
Spellman tends to de-emphasize the corner store as a family business and instead offers a fresh interpretation of the ways that new business [End Page 639] practices developed out of efforts of managers to control workers. The first grocer we meet is a Swedish immigrant who, in 1896, reportedly operated "the Most Modern Grocery Store" in San Leandro, California. Though Spellman works hard to populate her narrative with independent grocers that represent different social and ethnic backgrounds, women and ethnic minorities appear less frequently in the narrative than they did as proprietors of the corner store. African American grocers appear in some of the records of traveling salesmen who connected local grocers to the manufacturers of brand name products. But the most extensive analysis of African American grocers comes in Spellman's examination of the National Negro Business League's (NNBL) attempt to organize African American grocers into the Colored Merchants Association (CMA). Ironically, her conclusions about the failure of NNBL organizing efforts tend to emphasize the independent grocers' lack of business experience and concerns about giving up autonomy. Based on the...