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  • Mike Martinez

The Magicians of Main Street

When I started writing my blog in July 2011, I promised I would outline the trials and tribulations of writing for publication. In the months and years that followed my inaugural posting, I have discussed my experiences as a mid-list author of nonfiction, academic works. In many instances, I have included chapters and excerpts from my own books and articles.

Today I want to write about something different.

My cousin, Chris Mead, is the author of a terrific new book, The Magicians of Main Street: America and Its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945. He sent me a copy recently, and I read it. In this blog, my 81st posting, I want to discuss the book.

Here is a brief synopsis of the work, taken verbatim from Chris’ website:

A new book, the first-ever full-length history of chambers of commerce in the United States, describes how voluntary groups of business people, even before the American Revolution, changed not only their local economies but often their society. The Magicians of Main Street indicates, in considerable detail, how chambers of commerce affected the nation’s finance and currency, public health, transportation, public works, local government, education, and even cultural life. The traces of these organizations’ activities remain with us in countless ways, from Washington’s Cherry Blossom Festival to New York City’s subway to Chicago’s Board of Trade to the gaming industry of Las Vegas and the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Here is a brief biography of Chris, also lifted verbatim from his website:

Chris Mead is senior vice president of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, an organization representing 1,200 local, state, and regional chambers of commerce. He also is executive director of the foundation affiliated with ACCE, Community Growth Educational Foundation (CGEF). His previous experience includes economic development and other consulting, publishing newsletters on international trade, and serving as vice president of the Council for Urban Economic Development (now the International Economic Development Council).

Chris holds an MBA degree from Stanford University and a BA degree in English from Oberlin College. Chris is married to Laura Lewis Mead and has two daughters and a son. They live in Oakton, Va.

If you are like me, the thought of reading a history of chambers of commerce does not tickle your fancy. Isn’t the local chamber of commerce that stodgy old organization comprised of middle-brow, overweight local businessmen who meet at the nearby steakhouse to plot ways of promoting the community through silly boosterism?

Well, the answer is yes and no.

If Chris’ book consisted of mundane anecdotes about the chamber of commerce or summaries of meeting minutes, it would be impossibly dull, one of those books you plow through on pain of death. Yet a relative wrote it. If you are me, you would have to wade through the muck so you could do your duty and accurately say, "oh, yeah, I read the thing."

I am happy to report that Magicians is not a painful slog through horrible minutiae. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is a joy to read. I am not just saying that because Chris is my cousin. If I found the work to be boring and tedious, I would not write a book review. I would wait until I saw Chris and mutter little platitudes. I would smile, nod, and say, "it sure is hefty" or "well, it sure looks pretty!"

The Magicians of Main Street is pretty--well designed, handsomely bound, and filled with all sorts of interesting photographs--but it is much more than that. The book provides a detailed analysis of the historical time periods in which the chambers existed, and explains how and why chamber members acted in certain ways. Although it is impossible to discuss each of the thousands of local groups, the book places representative chambers (some prominent, some not so prominent) into historical context. It is history writ large, and it contains astonishing insights heretofore unknown by most of us.

Chambers of commerce have been involved in some of the most crucial, pivotal episodes in American history. Who knew?

As Chris points out in the book, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his visit to the United States in the 1830s that Americans have a remarkable tendency to join “voluntary associations.” A chamber of commerce is one such group, and the first chamber existed on American soil in 1768, even before the founding of the republic.

Since the first chamber appeared, the groups have been involved in numerous historical episodes. Chambers were instrumental in completing large public works and construction projects such as building the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams as well as the Golden Gate Bridge and the New York City subway system. A chamber in Atlantic City, New Jersey, sponsored the Miss America beauty pageant. The president of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce financed Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in 1927, hence the name of the plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” The Chicago Chamber of Commerce was upset at the proliferation of gangsters in the Windy City and pushed law enforcement officials to prosecute the infamous mobster Al Capone in the 1920s. Alas, a chamber of commerce was also involved in lobbying to relocate Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor that triggered World War II for the United States.

In short, chambers of commerce resemble most individuals. Some are good, some are bad, and some are ugly. Chris fairly and evenhandedly recounts cases and stories of each type in his groundbreaking book.

I should say a word about the publisher. Chris probably could have found a commercial or academic publisher but, in the end, he chose to self-publish. He did not want to make the compromises and changes that publishing through a traditional outlet would require.

Thirty or 40 years ago, the decision to self-publish a book usually meant that the text was not good enough to attract a traditional publishing house. While that is sometimes true today, in many instances an author chooses to self-publish for the autonomy it provides. That is the case with Chris.

The Magicians of Main Street would be a worthy addition to the list of any academic or trade press. Chris understood, however, that he might be forced to cut some of the text—the book is long—and he probably would be forced to trim the large number of photographs. Rather than conform to an editor’s wishes, Chris chose to retain control of the manuscript and pursue his own vision.

Kudos to Chris, for the results are impressive.

Even before the book was published, the project attracted public attention. In August 2012, almost two years before the work appeared in print, the Wall Street Journal ran a story. After Magicians was published, Michael Barone wrote a flattering review in the Washington Examiner, stating that the book comes “highly recommended.” More good press is sure to follow.

Even if you think, as I once did, that a book on the history of chambers of commerce will bore your socks off, think again. Do yourself a favor: Read The Magicians of Main Street. The time and energy you expend will be richly rewarded.

You can order it here:

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