2014-01-24 / Community

A Window on the Past

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company
By Craig Skelton
South Portland Historical Society

The A&P, located on Ocean Street in South Portland, was one of many markets in the city. (Courtesy photo) The A&P, located on Ocean Street in South Portland, was one of many markets in the city. (Courtesy photo) The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A&P, was located at 170 Ocean St. across from the well-known Uncle Andy’s Donut Shop. The British Empire sure left its mark all over the world and, if nothing else, the British are known for their dominance of the tea trade. I never knew they were a tea company. My memories of the A&P swirl in a cloud of coffee aroma. Consider the irony though, that a so-called “tea” company would devote a large portion of an aisle to the grinding and sale of coffee. It was the British blockade following the start of the Revolutionary War and tea shortages that led to colonists’ fascination with coffee.

If it didn’t come out of a box or a can, it probably wasn’t in the Skelton household when we were growing up. That didn’t stop me from marveling at the coffee grinder half way down one of the middle aisles at the A&P. I ached for my mother to dispense some whole beans and dump them into the grinder, but as that would have been a luxury in our home, I had to depend upon other shoppers to see the machine in operation. I hope that when I stood watch near a shopper grinding their coffee that they didn’t think it odd.

You will have to pick up a copy of “South Portland: A Nostalgic Look at Our Neighborhood Stores,” written by Kathy DiPhilippo, director of the historical society. In it, I lost count at 11 locations around South Portland where an A&P once operated. Her book is a wonderful look back with photos and descriptions that serves as a great reminder of days long past. It is evident that the A&P was a placeholder in the evolution from small to large grocery stores in South Portland.

Bathras Market in Willard Square stood out in my mind as a wonderful example of the mom-and-pop-type store where pop could be found walking behind the meat counter to wrap a cut of your choice then and there and Mom would be waiting at the cash register to help you check out. Bathras Market was about 1,500 square feet in size and in it you would find a selection of basic family needs.

If you ever shopped at Eddie Mardigan’s Hillside Red & White Market, featured in a recent article, you would know that his store carried more products, and in some cases more than one brand. The greater selection could only be made possible because his building occupied about 5,000 square feet. Eddie could be found going back and forth from the meat counter to the check out, yet given the size of the store it was more likely you would be greeted by one of a few employees Eddie would have had to hire to manage his much larger store.

The A&P on Ocean Street represented the next step in local evolution toward the supermarkets we know today, and it occupied just more than 10,000 square feet. With that larger area you might have found more than one brand of the same product and necessities not found on the shelves in a corner store like Bathras. The sign on the front of the building included the words “Super Market,” yet I don’t think the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company had any idea of the nature of “supermarkets” that were to come.

Although I marveled at the Eight O Clock Coffee being ground on the spot, my mother was sure to find a can of coffee under a different brand name and she would have chosen any brand with a lower price. The meat counter or the check out register would have been staffed or tended by one of a greater number of employees needed to operate a business in the larger environment.

Fast forward to today and those who shop in the Mill Creek area would find themselves in one of a couple stores featuring multiple selection of countless items within buildings hovering around 50,000 square feet. To keep that in perspective, you could fit 30 Bathras Markets in either of the modern day grocery stores found in Mill Creek today.

In spite of all the changes South Portland shoppers have seen over the years to the places we get our groceries, I will never forget that wonderful smell of freshly ground coffee when shopping with my mom at the Ocean Street A&P.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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