Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Real Early American A&P

A&P, celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2009, still officially goes by its full name – The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Although the “Pacific” part applied for a relatively brief portion of that timeframe, roughly the 1930’s through the 1960’s, and the company’s current geographic footprint is far smaller yet, A&P’s status as an American business and cultural icon is beyond question.

Probably the most enduring image of A&P, from an architectural point of view, is the colonial family of designs the company launched in 1959 to celebrate their centennial year. Known typically today as the “Centennial” stores, they were usually referred to in company advertising as being of “Early American design”. The darling of zoning boards everywhere due to their upscale look, hundreds of Centennial A&P’s were built throughout the 1960’s, although the company continued to build much more conventional-looking units throughout this period as well.

The photo above, from a 1951 issue of the long defunct Collier’s magazine, depicts a new A&P store in Fairfield, Connecticut. Pre-dating the “real” Centennial stores by nearly ten years, I guess this one can be called “Early Early American”. Interestingly, A&P had used colonial architectural touches – pediments, cupolas, the delicate script – on various occasions, long before this store even opened. The earliest example I’m aware of hails from way back in 1932, with the Williamsburg, Virginia store, designed to blend in with the (then new) Colonial Restoration.

While there’s still some of it left, I thought it would be fun to take a look at A&P during this, their 150th year.

32 comments:

  1. Hi Dave, I though you might like this link to the LIFE Magazine archives. Nothing but A & P.

    http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=A+%26+P+source:life&sa=N&start=0&ndsp=21

    Have a great week, Richard.

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  2. A&P has the unique ability to design dramatic stores despite little marketplace traction for the stores. In many cases it was a case of too little too late for the stores, not just it's "Centennial" designs but FutureStore, Family Mart and its 1969 prototype which predated the Kroger Superstore.

    As you had noted, the Centennial stores were visually stunning from the outside, though drab and generic on the inside. Other than the coffee grinders, little would have distinguished the decor from any other supermarket. A&P built the prototype throughout the 1960's and possibly even opened some in the early 70's. They were typically freestanding and smaller than the average sized stores the competition was building. Also they tended to be located an secondary and tertiary locations while the competition was getting a foothold in primary retail locations.

    Finast adopted a similar prototype around the same time as A&P, and many attribute Finast with originating the design and A&P imitating it throughout their much larger geography, though your 1950 picture demonstrated the design had corporate precedent and predecessors. A&P stayed away from the Centennial design in much of Florida and its California stores during the Centennial store phase, both states getting the "California" style designs in most locations, with the chain exiting California before the end of the 60's.

    A few examples of Centennials still operated as A&P with little exterior alteration. The ones that have passed to other uses tend to retain the original exterior. Many were reworked in the mid- to late-70's with a faux-Mansard hiding the colonial features, giving a "Winn-Dixiesque" appearance to the stores, to mimic the A&P mansard prototype in use by the mid-70's.

    A&P was slow to exit failing markets, often slowly closing stores and leaving an odd geography with a store or two remaiing in markets they should have completely retreated from.
    As an example, a cluster of stores still operated in the southeast Kentucky coal field towns of Harlan, Hazard, and Middlesboro until the late 80's, all formerly part of the Louisville division, but transferred to Atlanta when Louisville was closed. PLUS limited assortment stores were used on the dying Chicago division until the plug was pulled in I believe 1982.

    Even today, A&P clings to the Washington region with a marginal presence of one store in the District and a few in the Maryland suburbs under the SuperFresh banner. A&P's long presence in the capital city region has never been a primary player as Safeway/Sanitary and Giant Food-MD have long dominated the region. But A&P has outlasted Acme, Grand Union, Kroger, Food Fair and others who ventured into the DC region.

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  3. I am SO excited, Dave! For some inexplicable reason, long before I cultivated my retail geekness, I have had an enduring fondness and fascination with A&P. In high school, I remember reading novels by the writer Paul Zindel who wrote teen fiction with goofy titles like The Pigman, My Darling, My Hamburger and The Undertaker's Gone Bananas. Zindel usually set his books on Staten Island, NYC and that's where my family lives. My cousin, who was also a fan of Zindel, would discuss all the Staten Island references and the like. In a few of the books I remembered Zindel referencing A&P and visiting Staten Island on occasion at the time I didn't recall ever seeing one but I always wanted to. Lo and behold on a visit to NYC in 1998, we got to go to upstate New York to visit my mother's cousin who had just moved there. My aunt (the mother of the other Zindel fan) wanted to bring the hostess and their family a cake, so we stopped in a newish shopping center with an A&P. I finally got a chance to go in but for some reason I was left sorely disppointed. I think it might have been the fact that the store was new and not old and outdated like I pictured it could be when reading the Zindel novels. If only I had realized at the time that this was the beginning for me.

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  4. That's a handsome looking store.

    A&P had one of the few iconic grocery store designs with national presence with the Centennial. The only other one that even comes close was Safeway's Marina style.

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  5. Ken...that's right on the mark. A&P always seemed 'too little, too late' in many areas...and didn't seem to care to improve upon that image. It especially seemed that way in the south. You would often hear people say "I'll just run into the A&P to get that," in a manner that made it seem like a convenience store rather than a place where one did their major shopping.

    Growing up in the Space Coast area of Florida in the late fifties and early sixties, my county had, at one time, 9 A&P stores in 1962, and their architecture went to street-front downtown stores to very early almost-downtown shopping centers, to being "somewhat down the street" from the Publix, and about as far in the other direction as Winn-Dixie. With Publix catered to a higher socio-economic level, and Winn-Dixie to the lower level, A&P somehow had to fit in the middle.

    There was one Centennial store built in Brevard County...on Sarno Road in what seemed like far west Eau Gallie [now part of Melbourne]. After many of these stores closed, A&P built a Future Store on Merritt Island, while by 1975 still maintaining stores in north Melbourne and Cocoa. Everything else had closed. That pretty much adheres to yuor example about eastern Kentucky...and western North Carolina wasn't much different. An oddball [and usually very outdated] A&P would show up in surprisingly strange places, such as Tryon, NC...with the next nearest locating easily being over fifty miles away.

    I can't believe I never managed to make it into a Centennial store. Maybe it's not too late...there are the remnants of one in Fairburn, GA, that is now a FoodDepot. They don't change much of anything.

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  6. JimBobGA-Food Lion seems to have filled the convenience supermarket niche in much of the South Atantic and Southeast that A&P did, albeit with less interesting stores.

    Another quirk of A&P seems to have been its ability to fair well in resort areas long after A&P had faded in surrounding areas. A&P was well represented in the Myrtle Beach/ Grand Strand region until the Carolina operation was eliminated in 1997, with one store operating as part of the Atlanta division until 1999. Cape Code had a significant A&P presence long after A&P exited the remainder of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

    A&P's Atlanta division was something of an anomoly as it had several brushes with closure until the final decision to exit the region came in 1999. The FutureStore format was debuted in the mid-80's and Atlanta soon became the largest cluster of FutureStores in the company. By the early 90's, the division was on the line when Grand Union announced it was divesting the Big Star's in Atlanta. A&P bought the stores and finally in 1999 closed.

    New Orleans and Detroit saw similar moves by A&P as Atlanta until A&P shuttered the two divisions in 2006 for Detroit and 2007 in New Orleans. A&P had acquired market leader Farmer Jack in the late 80's in Detroit which became the most profitable division during the 90's.

    New Orleans was bolstered in the mid 80s when Kroger exited Baton Rouge. A former Kroger Superstore in Baton Rouge became one of the first A&P FutureStores. Another Kroger greenhouse survived relatively intact as A&P Sav-a-Center until 2006. The Schwegmann's chain was acquired in 1998, resulting in the retirement of the A&P name from most New Orleans area stores in favor of Sav-A-Center. Schwgmann's itself had acquired rival National Supermarkets stores in the region in 1995. Around 2002 Albertson's exited the New Orleans market with A&P taking over several locations. With the elimination of Koh'l's and Farmer Jack, New Orleans was the most remote A&P operation, when Hurricane Katrina hit The Big Easy in 2005, it spelled the end for A&P, who sold its remaining store to Rouse's and Breaux Mart in 2007.

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  7. A&P probably survived in resorts because they were familiar to a variety of tourists and they knew how to operate relatively small stores. In many places, they got by in the inner city and this carried them until the parent divisions were closed--they simply outlasted the competition, operated fairly decent stores and generated significant volumes, if not profits. They did well in NoLA because they outlasted the chain competition and their last major competitor was Winn-Dixie, easily the worst operator in the business.

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  8. I can't offer much in the way of A&P history, but I can say that one operated in La Jolla, CA (San Diego) until the late 60's. It was a very small store, and met it's demise when it was razed to build a new bank building.

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  9. I hadn't thought to compare Food Lion to A&P until Ken mentioned the comparison, but in many ways, Ken is right...in the southeast, both operated mainly as a large convenience store to many people, unless they had control of their market area.

    Architecturally, A&P had a good thing going with its stores-with-pylons, then later with their Centennial stores. Up until these two iconic structures became associated with A&P, they had stores only with a red and gold - or black and gold - sign on the front. In the last thirty years, Food Lion has followed the same route, going from slapping their name up on the fascia of a strip center, to some free-standing stores that were stucco-fronted, non-descript local grocers, to today's version which, if you haven't seen the newer Food Lion stores, seem to be an updated version of metropolitan barns. [I just invented that description, but that's about what the new stores in northwestern central Georgia look like...almost like you wouldn't be surprised to see some cows standing inside the front door]. BUT...inside, the new Food Lions actually look like they're trying to make a go of it, and they look good. Food Lion is now attacking the outer suburbs of Atlanta, and seem to be giving Ingle's some competition. With Food Lion's incursion into the Atlanta suburbs, I'm wondering which chain will be around ten years from now...because Ingle's seems to be stagnating at this point.

    As for the A&P outposts...while none of them were Centennial stores, A&P kept isolated stores in some areas far-removed from Atlanta. Examples are Port Royal [Beaufort], SC; two in Savannah which finally closed in '89 or
    '90; Dunn, NC; and Sylva, NC. Bryson City, NC, had a Centennial store until the Atlanta division closed, and there were a few A&P stores that had been Big Star [Grand Union] stores in odd places like Manchester. Milledgevile, and Montezuma, Georgia. [I wonder if A&P had a thing about towns that started with 'M.'] These weren't any types of architecturally significant places...just stores in small strip centers that happened to be the only game in town unless they had to compete with a Vidalia-based Piggly Wiggly store or a Winn Dixie in the next town over. [In Georgia, there's always another town about 15 miles away.] There were also three A&P stores, as well as one Sav-A-Center, in Columbus which lasted until the Atlanta division closed.

    A&P survives in the southeast mainly in my kitchen where one whole corner of the room is all A&P signs, canned goods, spice cans, dry-goods boxes, and other assorted A&P-logo dust-catchers.

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  10. Why did they fail in Chicago? As a boy I used to walk with my mother to the A&P until they closed this smaller location and moved about a mile eastward into a former National location. My mother started to shop at Jewel at that point.

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  11. Mother and I were just discussing making an A&P Spanish Bar cake for the holidays. Anyone remember that? I do, I do! Yum. Fond memories for both of us with that store. You might be interested in this link of an old, fading A&P in Chicago with a great labelscar! http://dimbeautyofchicago.blogspot.com/2008/11/visible-unforgettable.html

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  12. Wait! I just realized its you and Didi having a conversation on that Bright Lights Dim Beauty site!

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  13. In the Boston area A&P had a presence long before the supermarkets with the small grocery store. Toward the end of the 1940's they started building larger stores. We had a 1948 vintage A&P in Medford Square (along with a Stop & Shop and Star Market. Medford Square was one of the first downtown shopping area's that were planned after WWII. By 1957 or 58 A&P built a new store similar to the one you pictured about 3/4 of a mile from Medford Square on Mystic Avenue. That building is now an auto dealership and the earlier one in the Square is a sporting goods store. Stop & Shop built a new store at Wellington Circle in the brand-new Fellsway Shopping Plaza by the late 1950's as well. (That is how we met Dave).

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  14. LOL! Thanks, Adrienne. After I posted that last year someone sent me a link to a Centennial still hanging around in good condition. Haven't had a chance to go live and upclose to snap a photo. Maybe this year.

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  15. Richard – Great to hear from you, and thanks for that link! What an amazing collection! Definitely some things I can use there.

    Ken – I agree, A&P has had some ground-breaking architecture over the years, but their overly cautious approach to the market during the go-go years of the 50’s and 60’s set them back permanently, in my opinion.

    And you’re right about the Centennial store interiors – they were very much standard stuff, a major contrast to the great outside appearance of the buildings. In the earliest years of the centennials, they did use pediment-style signage inside on occasion, which carried the effect over a bit. Wish they’d kept that up!

    Finast’s colonial prototypes were very attractive indeed, and like A&P, they also opened conventional looking stores on a concurrent basis. The Centennial look just wouldn’t have looked appropriate for the L.A., stores, but the stores they opened there in the 60’s were incredible looking.

    You mention the 70’s A&P mansard remodels – they did open some new stores in that style as well.
    And the fact that they held on to small, remote clusters of stores far longer than they should have was a huge problem for decades.

    I never really clued on the “tourist” aspect of A&P – I would guess that they southern resort town locations had some familiarity appeal to travelers from the northeast, especioally during A&P heyday. And I sure wish I’d gotten to see the New Orleans French Quarter store before the sold the division. And they waited all those years for me!

    Didi – I’m glad! I hope these posts stand as a contribution to the A&P literature out there, right along Zindel’s! ;)

    And I’ll look forward to seeing that Centennial pic on your site one of these days!

    Steven – I really like it as well! The neat thing about this store as opposed to the aforementioned “real” centennials is the paneled window configuration. The 1959 and later stores used standard supermarket windows, which lacked the quaint colonial effect.

    And I agree - as icons go, the Marina Safeways are their only real peer.

    JimBobGa – Thanks for the great info on those locations! Seems like A&P ended up in the middle ground wherever they went, whether they actually meant to stake it out or not. The 1950’s/60’s Florida stores with their tall pylons were very nice looking, for sure!

    You mentioned Food Lion – it does seem that they’ve finally hit upon some unique, interesting architectural ideas. The most recent one I’ve seen, in the Boone, NC area, was very attractive.

    And I’m glad to hear that A&P lives on, at least in your kitchen – very cool!

    !

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  16. Anonymous – Thanks for those insights on the tourist area stores and A&P’s New Orleans success. As I mentioned above, I sure wish I could visit one down there.

    SanDiegoDavid – It’s a shame that A&P pulled out of Southern California when they did, but they would have needed to devote much more resources than they had over the years to make a real go of it. I’m guessing that La Jolla was as nice then as it is now – the fact that it was a small store is interesting. It was probably fairly old and quaint. Thanks!

    Brokecompsoul – Best I can tell, they just gave up in Chicago. The few stores I remember weren’t that clean or up to date, and Jewel pretty much cleaned their clock. Soon enough, Dominick’s would as well. They also had the same problem in Chicago that they did in other major metro markets – they were too slow to build large, modern stores in the rapidly growing suburbs.

    Adrienne – No problem – that conversation took place quite a while ago! :) And that Spanish Bar cake sounds fantastic!

    Larry – Nice to hear from you, and thanks for those details! Boston was a very important market for A&P for decades, and like in other cities, their small, ancient stores hung on forever – well into the 60’s in some areas, I’m sure. I’ll bet the Medford Square store was sharp looking. By the time I saw my first Centennial store (we moved close to one in 1970) it was showing some years. I doubt they had an equal for that cool Fellsway Stop & Shop sign, though

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  17. Just came across your blog today when I was looking for information on Goldblatt's.... this is amazing! You've brought back so many wonderful memories and I've only just begun to explore your blog. Thanks!!

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  18. I read an article in my local paper about the latest supermarket competition--Target just opened a store around here with a larger than usual food section that includes fresh produce and meats (while not being a Superstore).

    It included a list of market share or the various grocery chains in the Northeast region--the New England states, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

    It turns out A&P is a soiid #2, behind market leader Stop & Shop/Giant, well ahead of both Walmart and Target.

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  19. Linda - Welcome, and thanks so much! I'm really glad it's brought back some good memories for you -those were great times!

    Paul - Thanks for that info - at least A&P is showing strong in their home area. It truly is a local operation now. From what I've read, the Pathmark acquisition has been a real plus. It will be interesting to see the longer term effec of the superstores. Wal-Mart doesn't have the level of dominance there that they do in other parts of the country, and Target, after much soul-searching, is finally getting serious about grocery.

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  20. Dave, you definitely kept your promise to feature some A&P centennial stores before the end of their 150th anniversary year. Thank you so much. It was definitely worth the wait.

    The oldest A&P in continual operation today is their store in Maplewood NJ. It's cool, since the front abuts the sidewalk and the street right in front of the store, with ample off streetparking on the side and in back of the store, like so many of their earlier stores had.

    If you have the opportunity to visit an A&P or any one of their family of banner supermarkets, you will be in for a treat.

    This time of year is extra special since the stores sell Jane Parker fruitcake on beautifully displayed endcaps. But they seem to be gone in a blink of an eye.

    Another great promotion they had back in September was tins of various famous A&P products, coffee, orange pekoe tea, chocolate chuck cookies, peppermint puff candy, and cooking spices. These are definitely collectors items today.

    You can't mistake being inside an A&P once you step inside. It's still a magical place, especially the Eight O'clock coffee aisle.

    BTW, the French Quarter A&P was one for the ages. I still can't comprehend how the mgr stocked so much product in such a little space. It was the best convenience store ever.

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  21. A&P had a small speciality chain, one was on Beacon Hill in Boston in the late 1970s that I think A&P later closed or sold off? It seems to have been a coffee/tea and spice store with limited items. (Maybe a British like name?) It had the look of an old 1900s storefront using older script style on its door..but I cant find that old name listed anywhere!

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  22. Andy - I've seen pictures of those commemorative tins - they look fantastic! Unfortunately I don't live anywhere A&P's market area. I haven't had an occasion to travel to the Northeast at all this year, after years of traveling there multiple times annually.

    GooJa - I haven't heard of it. I'll keep my eyes open for it, maybe someone who remembers the name will jump in!

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  23. Hey Dave.
    I once again thank you for this great series of articles on A&P
    As one who once lived a block away from a old former "centennial"
    A&P the history of this great company has always intrigued me.
    I have some of those 150th anniversary collector's spices at home. I;m dissapointed that they did'nt just use their REAL vintage "Red Cicle" logo rather than the "Fusion Red Circle" (combining the red circle with the current logo) on the collector's items. These are quite interesting times for A&P as it turns 150. according to a source it seems to be in a transition of not only management but possibly ownership as well. The Haub Family of Germany who own much of A&P (and have since they bought the Hartford Foundation's shares in 1979) is evaluating it's options with A&P possibly selling it's 30+ percent stake. They have done some good things with A&P throughout the past quarter century (especially from the 1980s-mid 90s) but seem to have had little luck outside of NYC turning A&P around as of late (even with Pathmark.) It may be time for new blood to give the Tea Company that much needed boost it deserves

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  24. Cameron - Thanks again! Maybe the original Red Circle logo would have been more appropriate, but the fusion logo is interesting, and deserves points for effort in my book.

    As far as A&P's ownership goes, that's been under speculation for years on end now. One way or another A&P keeps plugging on though, and that's a good thing!

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  25. Wonderful comments and pictures.
    For those with an interest in all things A&P the A&P HISTORICAL SOCIETY in cooperation with the HARTFORD FAMILY FOUNDATION, currently is sponsoring the 150th Anniversary Show and Exhibit at the Paterson Museum, Paterson NJ.
    picture, ephemera, and anything A&P
    related, 1859 - mid 20th C. Show is
    open to the public, until 1/17/10.
    For directions and times contact the museum. For those who would like to go but due to time or distant constraints photo's can be made available through this writer
    at ArtnFacts08@aol.com

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  26. I'm probably wrong, but I think that Fairfield Centennial store either still exists or was just torn down. I'm pretty sure it was visible from the train, I'll have to remember to look next time.

    Fairfield has its share of colonial cupolas, but it is actually easy to spot the genuine ones, and the fake ones usually show a certain 1930s, 50s, 70s, or 90s sense of materials and construction (and budget; it's kind of hard to put in words) The A&P fooled nobody, but at least it tried and did well. Much Better than how Stop and Shop puts a few bricks and maybe a few dormer windows on it's store facades, and infinitely better than the Walmarts that do the same on their massive warehouses in order to "fit in with Connecticut architecture" and win zoning approval from moron zoning boards.

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  27. Walt – Thanks, glad you liked them! I sure would love to have seen the exhibit, which was no doubt fantastic. I will write for pictures! I hope that you had good attendance for it – it was definitely a deserving event!

    Anonymous – Hopefully the Fairfield store is still there – it would be a pleasant surprise! I definitely agree with your premise that efforts to emulate classic architecture were much more effective in years past. All too often, as you suggest, companies today will slap a couple of design elements – a dormer, cupola or whatever – on a “big box”, and that suffices. At least A&P made a better attempt. Thanks for the comment!

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  28. I remember it's a bunch of A&P stores in georgia,from millegeville to atlanta to fort valley,warner robins etc.They all gone.I still see the empty A&P Family Mart store in warner robins i pass by day by day now grass is growing on the lot.Now Publix, Wal-Mart supercenter and Kroger taken over georgia.Winn-Dixie be next to be faded out.I wish for an nashville ga,based Harvey's grocery store to take the old A&P Family Mart store.it's won't never happens.

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  29. Anonymous – A&P was in North Georgia as well – my mother’s family is from the Calhoun and Dalton areas, and they have fond memories of A&P stores. Maybe someone else will take over the old Warner Robins A&P location and put in a nice supermarket. Thanks!

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  30. It's been announced today that A&P is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, so things have apparently begun to look bleak for the chain.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20101213/bs_nm/us_atlanticpacific_bankruptcy

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  31. It could be the end, or it could be a new beginning; it all comes down to what Ron Burkle wants to do with it. In bankruptcy A&P can finally shed all those old leases from closed stores, restructure its debts and shrink down to a core of 200 or so profitable stores in the New York metropolitan area. Maybe.

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  32. Wow--just stumbled onto this site and that A&P photo!!
    I grew up in Fairfield CT and my dad & I shopped at this very store every Saturday in the 60s & 70s. I walked by there a few weeks back, and the building's gone. It's an ugly car dealership now. Thanks for the look back!

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