Joshua Clark Davis. From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. Columbia University Press, 2017. xii, 336 pp.
In From Head Shops to Whole Foods, Joshua Clark Davis has published a book both analytically compelling and narratively gripping. An assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Baltimore, Davis studies “activist entrepreneurs” who started thousands of businesses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, almost all of which failed within the next few years. From Head Shops to Whole Foods traces the brief lifespan of this economic phenomenon and then details how mainstream businesses co-opted and appropriated the legacies of these ill-fated idealistic endeavors, especially with calls for ethical consumption from the likes of Michael Pollan and other activists in the twenty-first century. Deceptively, this is not a declensionist narrative. Rather, Davis brilliantly succeeds in extracting a story of hope from somewhat depressing facts, painting a picture of a moment when activists turned capitalism against itself and dared to dream of an ethical, democratic, and participatory economy.
Davis helpfully conceptualizes the interventions of activist businesses within the tripartite framework of product, place, and process. To varying degrees, each of these activist businesses tried to reinvent mainstream corporate capitalism within these three domains. First, these businesses offered products that informed and expressed their politics: environmentally-friendly alternatives to disposable products, drugs to open your mind, and treatises advocating for the Black Power movement that other stores would not or did not stock. Second, the physical spaces and settings of these businesses were often radical departures from the norm, and their storefronts were places of community, of activism, of being able to openly engage in behaviors or drugs that were deemed unacceptable in other public places. Finally, activist business endeavors tried to operate through means other than traditional hierarchies of corporate management and profit accumulation. In doing so, they “reconceptualized processes of doing business by promoting shared ownership, limited growth, and democratic workplaces” (4).
Given the wide range of possible businesses to explore, the book constrains itself to four types of businesses that were most common and most high profile: Black Nationalist bookstores, head shops, feminist businesses, and natural foods stores. (For those unfamiliar, head shops today refer to businesses that sell drugs, supplies, and paraphernalia.) In particular, the natural foods purveyors of this era were not simply concerned with providing healthier or more natural food to their consumers but deeply dedicated to environmentalism more broadly, including animal rights, pacifism, and the dignity of labor. The final chapter of the book traces the death and legacy of these early activist businesses through to the twenty-first century by way of the story of Whole Foods. The evolution of founder John Mackey from idealistic communalist to neoliberal capitalist is told with incisive criticism, but not vitriol, as Davis illustrates how Whole Foods successfully maintained the trappings of progressivism and radicalism while utterly forsaking commitments to create new places and processes within capitalism.
Indeed, the inevitable shortcomings of this book lie mostly in the fact that it does not address more types of activist businesses, or more variations on the genres that Davis already explores. Readers may also be hungry for more exploration regarding why certain types of businesses (book or newspaper enterprises, for example) were more attractive for these activists than others (there are no references to any radical house-cleaning services or car-washes). Food scholars in particular will see many opportunities for future scholarship lurking in these pages.
Nonetheless, the book provides more than enough reason to heed the author’s call “to rethink the widespread idea that the work of social movements and political dissent is by definition antithetical to all business and marketplace activity” (4). The work Davis draws upon in establishing this claim includes that of Professors Tanisha Ford and Tiffany Gill, who study Black businesses in the twentieth century. If this book is a compelling argument for food studies scholars to read broadly and to #citeblackwomen in historical studies, it also serves as an illustration to traditional historians of politics and economics that food (pardon my pun) can be serious business.
From Head Shops to Whole Foods is one of the first books published in an exciting new line from Columbia University Press, entitled Columbia Series in the History of U.S. Capitalism. Alongside other fresh publications like Anna Zeide’s book Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry (2018), it is not unreasonable to anticipate that this book sits near the start of a new wave of historical scholarship investigating the politics of food through the lens of capitalism and vice versa; this reviewer certainly hopes so. Indeed, this insight on the confluence of activism and economics should inform future food studies scholarship on local-, organic-, slow-, and other food movements and makes this book required reading for scholars of food in the twenty-first century.
Besides serving as GAFS President in 2018, Anastasia Day is a history doctoral candidate and Hagley Scholar in Capitalism, Technology, and Culture at the University of Delaware. She identifies as a historian of environment, technology, business, and society, themes that collide uniquely in food. Her dissertation is entitled “Productive Plots: Nature, Nation, and Industry in the Victory Gardens of the U.S. World War II Home Front.” You can read more at her website: www.thehistorianinthegarden.com and follow her on Twitter: @Anastasia_C_Day.