The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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Piggly Wiggly and beyond

David Gwynn
David Gwynn

David Gwynn '92, '09 MLIS has devoted countless hours during the past decade to chronicling the history of supermarket chains. The impressive results are available on his web site, the subject of media coverage from numerous outlets, including USA Today, Utne Reader and the British newspaper The Guardian.

Why does he do it?

“That's the question reporters always ask,” he says, his voice a deep rumble. If he were less polite, he might sigh. “I've played this scene before.”

The stores are endlessly fascinating; interviews, not so much. Why is he interested in supermarkets? He just is and has been ever since he was a boy growing up in Greensboro.

“All geeky kids have weird things they're interested in. Supermarkets were one of my interests. I'd always scope out the oldest stores in town and beg my mom to take me so I could bask in their oldness.

His obsession has endured. At UNCG, he majored in sociology and geography with thoughts of becoming an urban planner before deciding he was more interested in urban architectural history. Rather than being drawn to grand landmarks, however, he wanted to know how the utilitarian suburban supermarket was adapted to city locations.

“I'm more interested in the everyday spaces, the places people go to and deal with on a regular basis, the ones we take for granted and don't pay attention to. Supermarkets aren't meant to be monuments to be preserved for a long time; they're containers for making money.

The first city David researched was San Francisco, where he lived in the late '90s when he started his web site. The self-service stores that started springing up in the second decade of the 20th century were often known as “groceterias,” because of their similarity to a recently popularized type of restaurant, the cafeteria.

The number of chain food stores skyrocketed in the '20s, but those stores were very different from the supermarket behemoths of today. They tended to be storefront operations of about 1,000 square feet, Gwynn says, and didn't offer parking, because most customers traveled by foot or public transportation.

In this era, chain markets crowded city streets like shoppers at a two-for-one sale. A mile-long stretch of Market Street through downtown Greensboro was home to eight food stores in 1935: three Penders, three A&Ps, an Ivory and a Piggly Wiggly.

Groceteria reveals the former locations of several stores near the campus:

  • 403 Tate Street was the site of an A&P, Ivory, Bi-Rite and Sav-Way, before becoming College Mart. In 1935, the A&P and the Ivory each occupied half of the space.
  • A Piggly Wiggly operated at 950 Walker, now the address of New York Pizza, in the '30s and '40s.
  • 1615 Spring Garden Street, now a CVS, was once a Kroger.

The site includes detailed entries on Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Stockton in California; Charlotte, Greensboro, High Point, Raleigh and Winston-Salem in North Carolina; and Tampa, Fla.

David, digital project coordinator in University Libraries at UNCG, has done the vast majority of his research on his own, but through Groceteria he has heard from many people who share his interest (not to mention all the reporters).

“I'm finding through the web that there are more and more of us out there. It's a fairly common obsession.”

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Last updated: Tuesday, 04 October 2011
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