From the Civil War through the Great Depression small businessmen and their stores dominated retailing in nearly every city and town. Within the walls of their shops, grocers wrestled with fundamental changes in the structures of industrial and commercial capitalism, including the development of mass production, distribution, and marketing, the growth of regional and national markets, and the introduction of new organizational and business methods. Yet today we know very little about the considerable achievements of these small businessmen and their corner stores and even less about their major contributions to the making of "modern" enterprise in the United States. Popular stereotypes of Rockwellian storekeepers as avuncular men who prevailed over pickle-barrel conversations and checkers games, have characterized grocery retailers as backward and resistant to modernizing impulses. Cornering the Market challenges these conventions to argue that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century grocers were important but unsung innovators of business models and retail technologies that fostered the rise of contemporary retailing.
Small businessmen revolutionized business practices from the bottom by becoming the first to own and operate cash registers, develop new distribution paths, and engage in transforming the grocery trade from local enterprises to a nationwide industry. Drawing on private thoughts from storekeepers' diaries, business ledgers and documents, and the letters of merchants, wholesalers, traveling men, and consumers, Spellman shows how proprietors confronted industrialization by crafting solutions centered on notions of efficiency, scale, and price controls, without abandoning local ties, turning social concepts of community into commercial profitability. It was a powerful combination businesses from chain stores to Wal-Mart continue to exploit in the twenty-first century.