Apparently Hannaford’s old ad slogan is true: They never stop surprising you.
My surprising story began last fall. For the past five years, the free monthly magazine I publish, The Bollard, had been available at Hannaford supermarkets in southern Maine, in racks by the doors among numerous other free monthly and weekly papers. Supermarkets are very valuable distribution locations for the free press. They’re the closest thing we have in modern times to what used to be called “the commons,” the place where everyone in the community crosses paths and shares news and views.
Because supermarkets are such strong magnets for free papers, they’re also typically the only places the free press can’t access for free. Hannaford and Shaw’s contract with newspaper distribution companies that manage the racks, providing some order to what otherwise would quickly become a mess. The contractors charge publishers for this access and typically pay supermarkets for the exclusive right to offer this coveted space.
Hannaford has a such an arrangement with Dominion Distribution, a company based in Virginia that also does this work for Market Basket supermarkets. Last summer, the Market Basket chain entered Maine with a store in Biddeford, and Dominion contacted me to see if I’d like to add that location. I told the company I would, and the Dominion said it’d get back to me once details were finalized.
In the fall, Dominion’s customer-service rep, a very nice Southern lady, called me with some bad news. The powers-that-be at Market Basket had seen The Bollard and decided it was not appropriate for their store.
Oh well, I thought, so be it. The Bollard’s content is edgier than other publications’ around here, and some people take offense to that. For example, we publish a seasonal column about fishing by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley that often contains “salty” language typical of fishermen.
But the news was much worse than that. Dominion had decided The Bollard was no longer appropriate for Hannaford supermarkets, either, and so was pulling our papers from all those locations, effective immediately. Surprise!
To say I was shocked and angered by this decision would be an understatement. If any Hannaford shoppers or employees had had a problem with The Bollard over the past half-decade, word of it had not reached my ears.
I eventually reached an executive at Dominion by phone. He was unable to tell me what content was deemed offensive, other than to drawl, “There were words in there I couldn’t say to a lady.” He went on to say that the owner of Dominion Distribution’s parent company, Dominion Enterprises, is one of the richest men in Virginia, pays to have Bibles printed in every language in the world, and would have his head if he knew the company was disseminating a blasphemous rag like mine. (The exec refused to identify the owner, but did say this man sold the Weather Channel to NBC in a deal worth billions, so it took me about five seconds to subsequently identify him online as Frank Batten Jr., whose foundation has given tens of million of dollars to Christian initiatives and conservative political groups, including the far-right Focus on the Family).
When I told the exec I intended to talk with Hannaford about this, he pointed out that the supermarket is also part of a much larger company, the Belgian-based Delhaize Group. I was led to understand that it was highly unlikely this exclusive relationship between two enormous corporations would be affected by the protests of a puny publisher in Maine who prints dirty words.
Sure enough, after several months of back-and-forth communication with an executive at Delhaize America’s headquarters in North Carolina, I was informed in late March that The Bollard was not welcome in Hannaford supermarkets. But when I called Maine-based Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom (a former Portland Press Herald reporter) for comment before I wrote this column, he told me a final decision had not been made, and asked me to wait a day before writing about this in the BDN while discussions continued. I agreed, and the next day Blom called to tell me that The Bollard is welcome back. Surprise again!
I called my kindly customer rep at Dominion this month, and arrangements have been made to resume distribution in May. I feel relieved and grateful about this for many reasons, but it’s most gratifying to know that despite being part of an international conglomerate, Hannaford managers and executives at the local level are genuinely responsive to the concerns of small-business owners like me for whom the supermarket is more than a place for groceries. It’s a crucial part of our community.