Part 3 of Built to Last: Reusing Industrial Age Buildings in a Postindustrial City: The Case of Willimantic, Connecticut

Jamie H. Eves

The Invasion of the Chain Stores: From A & P Supermarket to Food Co-op

   Like “big government,” “big retail” first arrived in Willimantic during the industrial era, not the postindustrial period. In 1910, towards the end of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, chain grocery stores came to Willimantic. That year the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, later known simply as the A & P, leased space at 793 Main Street in the marble-front Hayden block (left), one of the city’s premier commercial buildings, and opened a grocery store. From a business perspective, the move made sense. With its rapidly growing population, Willimantic was an expanding market. During the preceding 30 years, according to the United States Census, the population of the town of Windham had surged from 8,265 to 12,604. Yet the number of locally owned grocery stores had remained static, with 20 stores in 1880, 21 in 1890, 20 in 1900, and 23 in 1910. (16)

   Chain stores were a creation of the industrial era. They took advantage of economies of scale by buying packaged food in bulk and passing some of the savings along to consumers in the form of lower prices, a strategy made easier by the invention in the mid-1800s of canned food and refrigerator railroad cars. The history of chain stores began in New York City in 1859, when entrepreneurs George Gilman and George Hartford opened a store they called the Great American Tea Company. In 1869, they changed the name to the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. They opened more stores, and by 1876 owned a chain of 67 shops. Between 1912 and 1915, A & P opened a new store every three days. (17)

   The population of Windham continued to grow, reaching 13,801 in 1920. Local grocers, perhaps goaded by the arrival of the A & P, took notice of the expanding market, and by 1920 Willimantic had 46 locally owned grocery stores. A & P remained the only chain store. After 1920, however, industry in Willimantic declined and population growth slowed, a result of a general slump in textile manufacturing following World War I, the devastating American Thread Company strike of 1925, and the Great Depression of 1929-39. Windham had only 13,773 residents in 1930 and 13,824 in 1940. (17) Not surprisingly, the number of locally owned grocery stores, which had doubled in the prosperous 1910s, remained static in the 1920s and 1930s, with 50 stores in 1930 and 48 in 1940. (18)

   Unlike locally owned stores, though, the number of chain grocery stores in Willimantic surged after 1920. Perhaps the chain stores were responding to the nationwide prosperity of the Roaring Twenties, as opposed to the local pattern of economic struggle. In 1928, just before the Great Depression, Willimantic had 12 chain grocery stores, including five Economy Grocery Company stores (55 Church Street, 55 High Street, 729 Main Street, 798 Main Street, and 877 Main Street), four A & P stores (38 High Street, 451 Main Street, 717 Main Street [shown left, when it was a restaurant before becoming an A & P], and 801 Main Street), two First National stores (457 Main Street and 773 Main Street), and one Grand Union Tea Company store (at 24 Union Street). The chain stores had invaded Willimantic. (19)

   True to form, Willimantic’s earliest chain stores were typical Gilded Age storefronts, no larger than the locally owned shops with which they competed. Indeed, they sometimes took over the spaces formerly used by locally owned groceries, as when A & P located at 717 Main Street, formerly Herbert Reade’s grocery store (1908 advertisement, right). Like the Hurley Grant Co. store at 704 Main Street in c. 1910-15 (left), they were deep and narrow, only about 25 feet wide but 75 or more feet deep. None of the buildings were new. Instead, the chain store companies leased space in already existing commercial or residential buildings, most if not all of which had been built in the 19th century. The 1921 Willimantic street directory was the first to have a cross-check street guide that enabled readers to look up street addresses. According to the directory, only two of the twelve 1928 chain groceries were in existence in 1921, the A & P stores at 717 Main Street and 38 High Street. (The original 793 Main Street A & P store of 1910 had been replaced in 1921 by a Grand Union Tea Company shop, a chain store that did not list itself as a grocery in the directory.) Of the other ten 1928 sites, in 1921 two had formerly been occupied by local grocers: 798 Main Street, by Carl W. Tripp, and 877 Main Street, the site of today’s Opus restaurant, by Walter H. Hibbard. Two had been private residences: 55 High Street and 457 Main Street. Six had been other types of shops: a dry goods store at 55 Church Street, a clothing store at 729 Main Street (today a private educational nonprofit), a furniture store at 451 Main Street (today a restaurant), an import shop at 801 Main Street (now part of Berkshire Bank), a tailor shop at 773 Main Street (where the Burton Leavitt Theater is today), and a shoe store at 24 Union Street (demolished in the 1970s urban renewal  and today part of Jillson Square park). (20)

   Meanwhile, the number of locally owned grocery stores, which had once featured such important businesses as Brown’s grocery store (right, late 1800s), although static through the down times of the 1920s and 30s, began to decline. There were only 37 locally owned groceries in 1950, 27 in 1960, 16 in 1970, 13 in 1980, and just eight in 1990. The reason was not that the population was decreasing (for the number of residents of Windham actually increased from 13,824 in 1940 to 22,039 in 1990), but rather that the small, local grocery stores of the early industrial era were now being driven out of business by the bigger and better capitalized chain stores. (21)

   Or, to be more accurate, by competition from chain supermarkets. After 1940, Willimantic’s chain stores transformed themselves, from small shops catering to walk-in traffic to large stores geared to serve the drive-in shoppers of the automobile age. Supermarkets allowed customers to buy more goods in  a single trip and therefore shop less frequently. Their spacious parking lots accommodated dozens of cars. Their roomy size, use of wheeled shopping carts, and self-service designs permitted shoppers to walk the aisles and select their purchases themselves. In 1941, during the World War II economic boom, A & P closed its three small, walk-in shops and opened Willimantic’s first supermarket, at 91 Valley Street. Where in 1928 Willimantic had had 12 small, walk-in chain grocery shops representing four chains (A & P, First National, Economy, and Grand Union), in 1950 it had only six stores (five First National shops and one A & P supermarket). In 1960 there were just three (one A & P supermarket, one First National supermarket, and one small Suncrest shop at 55 High Street, a former Finast — shown at left in 1938, when it was still a Finast), in 1970 four (one A & P supermarket [shown below], one First National supermarket, one Stop and Shop supermarket, and one Suncrest shop), and in 1980 just one (a Stop and Shop supermarket). Having first driven out most of the locally owned stores, the supermarkets had then consumed each other. Willimantic’s A & P and First National closed during the 1970s, unable to compete with the larger, better capitalized Stop and Shop, a rebranding of the old Economy chain that had existed in Willimantic in the 1920s. By the end of the industrial era, monopoly capitalism had won. (22)

   As it turned out, however, Stop and Shop’s monopoly was short-lived. During the postindustrial 1980s, several major changes occurred. First, a second chain supermarket, Shop Rite, arrived in town to compete with Stop and Shop. Second, the Independent Grocer’s Association (IGA) opened a locally owned supermarket in town. Third, three chain convenience stores — two Cumberland Farms and one Dairy Mart — also appeared, and more would follow. Fourth, seeking alternatives to chain-store-type food and prices, local residents organized and opened the Willimantic Food Co-op. The Co-op had begun in the early 1970s as the Willimantic Buyers Club, which met in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Valley Street. But in 1980 it merged with another buyers club in nearby Storrs, and formed the Willimantic Food Co-op, with a retail store at 861 Main Street. In 1991 the Co-op moved into larger quarters on Meadow Street, and then in 2005 it moved again — ironically, into the former A & P (Willimantic’s first supermarket) on Valley Street, where today it is the only storefront food co-op in Connecticut (below). Is this recent challenge to retail monopoly a temporary aberration, or a new trend?