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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now we're going to talk about a giant retailer that's been admired and reviled. It has used its scale to bring down prices for consumers, but was blasted as an enemy of independent retailers.

And we're not talking about Wal-Mart. We're talking about A&P, originally known as The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.

Marc Levinson writes about what was once a behemoth, America's first major supermarket chain, in a new book called "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America." The story begins in the mid-1800s, an era before branding, or even packaging.

Mr. MARC LEVINSON (Author): Food retailing back in those days was a really primitive industry. Things like canned goods and packaged goods with brand names didn't really come on the scene until the 1890s. You would go into a grocery store and you'd have barrels of pickles and barrels of vinegar and bags of sugar that would be weighed out for you, and bulk products like that.

MONTAGNE: Two brothers took over a tea business, started selling other items, then reinvented the way Americans buy food.

Mr. LEVINSON: John and George Hartford developed the idea of what became known as the economy store. You limited the merchandise, the high turnover merchandise. You kept limited hours. You didn't give credit. You didn't give delivery. You could run the store at very low cost, and you could pass those low prices on to your customers.

MONTAGNE: You write about how the A&P's success was also its undoing. Its relentless expansion create enemies. And the government sued A&P. Tell us about that.

Mr. LEVINSON: It's hard to recall now what a huge business food retailing was in the 1920s and 1930s. There was literally a grocery store on every corner in urban America. There was roughly a grocery store for every 50 families in the United States. So there were hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people whose livings depended upon mom-and-pop grocery stores. A&P really threatened the jobs of all of these people, and there was a backlash.

In 1944, the Roosevelt administration filed a criminal anti-trust complaint against A&P. And the charge was that it was destroying equality of opportunity, as the judge put it. And for that reason, A&P was found to violate anti-trust law.

MONTAGNE: And in the book, you write that the political battle really did come down to competing visions of society.

Mr. LEVINSON: What was really at the heart of the battle over A&P and the battle over chain stores that went on from the '20s into the '50s was this idea that we need to preserve small business. Many of the opponents of chain stores were trying to preserve what they saw as the small-town, traditional lifestyle supported by merchants who had gone into business on their own and made their own way in the world.

The competing vision to that was really the pure economic vision. A&P's methods, A&P's efficiency significantly reduced food costs for the average American consumer. Back in the '20s, the average, working-class household would spend a third or more of its income on food. These days, food is really not such a big deal for most households, because the distribution system has become a lot more efficient. But there's clearly a tradeoff.

MONTAGNE: So in a way, it sounds like the battle of the competing visions continues today.

Mr. LEVINSON: This battle is very much with us. We like the idea, in principle, of having competition. But the reality is that we have a hard time dealing with competition. Competition means people lose their jobs. Competition means businesses go out of business. It's really very uncomfortable. So while we like this capitalist economy, we don't really want unrestrained competition. The costs are just too high.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. LEVINSON: It's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Marc Levinson's new book is called "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America."

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