A version of this article appeared August 17, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.
Some people think of the chamber of commerce as the place where businessmen bicker over things like how to add downtown parking spaces. But Chris Mead, who has been writing a book about the chambers for five years, wants to correct that impression.
It was the chamber in Atlantic City, N.J., he says, that created the Miss America pageant, while the St. Louis chamber helped pay for Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic. That's why his famous plane was called the Spirit of St. Louis.
Then, too, the downfall of gangster Al Capone was engineered by the Chicago Association of Commerce, which collected financial information leading to his arrest. Elliot Tiber, president of the White Lake-Bethel, N.Y., Chamber of Commerce, had the permit for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the 1969 music festival.
"They needed a permit, and I had a permit," says Mr. Tiber, who recalls his chamber had four members including himself, and the right to have a festival.
Mr. Mead assumes most people think chambers are boring. "Except they're not," he says.
While the 58-year-old Mr. Mead is a senior vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, a trade group for officials of 1,200 local chambers, this is his personal pet project. He arrives at ACCE's Alexandria, Va., building at 6 o'clock every morning, he says, when the place is quiet and the parking lot below his corner-office window is empty. He writes history until 7:30, before tackling more contemporary problems like signing up new members and dreaming up things to sponsor.
The American workplace is full of people with side interests: aspiring novelists who take lunch with a laptop and musicians who come into the office red-eyed from last night's gig. Mr. Mead is like that, a part-time dreamer.
The inspiration for Mr. Mead's largely upbeat adventure came several years ago when he was reading an Al Capone biography that detailed the Chicago chamber's role in putting the gangster away. He wondered why he had never heard the story despite working for a national association of chambers, and after collecting other bits of trivia he decided to create a list of five stories to be distributed to members—"just to show our members that chambers have done something interesting," he says.
He expanded the effort to include notable people who had served on chamber boards (John D. Rockefeller was one), and to more than 100 pages. Mr. Mead kept going and today has a tentative title for what he has written: "The Magicians of Main Street." He hopes to see it published. "If 500 of the right people read it, maybe I'll think it's worth it," he says. "I could have a minor career in speaking at chamber anniversary dinners."
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