Ask McGehee: Recently a brick building on Government Street, just east of Broad Street, was demolished.

The building, located at 850 Government St., dated to around 1944 when it housed a new A&P grocery store. Until 1928, this lot had held the handsome two-story Colonial Revival home of Vivian P. Gaines, a well-respected Mobile physician.

The northeast corner of the block was commercialized early in the 20th century. A two-story building housed a variety of businesses including the popular Electrik Maid Bake Shop, which was owned by John S. Marshall, whose famous biscuits had a far longer life span. The former Gaines’ home gave way to a parking lot.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company was founded in 1859 as a New York retailer of tea and coffee. By 1915, it had become a chain grocery store, and for the next 60 years it would reign as the nation’s largest food retailer. At first, customers stood at a counter and gave their grocery list to a clerk to fill the order, but a revolution was on its way.

In 1936, the firm converted its stores to self-serve supermarkets and began expanding with the new concept nationwide. In many ways, it was the Publix of its day. By 1939, seven A&P’s were operating in Mobile. Six years later, on the corner of Government and South Jefferson streets, an additional A&P popped up with a brick building on the western half and a parking lot on the east.

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Grocery stores follow the populace, and as Mobile sprawled to the west, A&P followed. By the 1960s, stores had been added in Spring Hill and Cottage Hill while the store at 850 Government was abandoned in 1962.

The westward migration and a shiny new National Food Store at 851 Government St., completed in 1961, must surely have been factors. Why stop at the more modest A&P when shoppers could go across the street and enjoy a “giant facility” featuring a front wall of glass and sidewalls of “simulated old brick”?

During the 1970s, grocery stores began to grow and change, but not the A&P. The nation’s leading chain had lost its place in 1975, and has never recovered its stature. After failing to buy out the Delchamp’s chain in the 1980s, the remaining A&P’s closed down in Mobile.

Between long spells of vacancy, the building at 850 Government St. housed a fabric outlet, a car dealership and finally a restaurant supply firm. City directories indicate it has been vacant since the late 1980s.

This busy Government Street corner will remain vacant for the foreseeable future. The neighboring First Baptist Church is developing the space for a parking lot.

Tom McGehee

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