How Wal-Mart ate our small town

I KNOW that many before me have written about the destruction that Wal-Mart has brought to small towns across the U.S., but at this crucial time of strikes and boycotts, I thought it was time to remind everyone that supporting Wal-Mart workers now doesn't just help Wal-Mart workers' cause, it helps everyone!

While I definitely won't be shopping at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, I admit that I spend about half my monthly food budget there. It feels like I have no choice. I'm sure I will get lots of responses from people who believe that I do have a choice, for all sorts of reasons, so let me underline the word "feels," and maybe even back down to saying, "It's very hard not to."

Here's why: I grew up in a small town, population under 500. In the 1950s, it had several "mom and pop" grocery stores, a hardware store, a drug store, a general store for clothes and sewing items and a few other businesses. About 10 miles away was a bigger town (population 5,000) with two independent supermarkets, a Safeway and a main street packed with local business: shoes, clothes, jewelry, office supplies--you name it! Twenty miles away was a slightly bigger town, with a little more, and about 50 miles away, there was a small city, with even more.

Things changed and the number of small stores slowly declined, but even in the 1970s, there was plenty of choice. Then the town 20 miles away got its first "big box" store, and the city 50 miles away got its first "mall." Then I was grown up, and I left.

Well, you turn your back for 30 years, and you wouldn't believe what can happen! I moved back to that little town recently. One brave local mom and pop store is still hanging on, but the entire main street is like a ghost town. What hasn't been knocked down is boarded up, except for one shop next to the post office run by an elderly gentleman who sells low-end second-hand goods.

Ten miles down the road, things look similar. One independent supermarket remains, and almost all the main street stores that are still open sell second-hand goods. Most don't bother opening on a regular basis.

Twenty miles down the road, that's where the Wal-Mart is. If you want shoes or jeans or something for the house, that's probably where you'll have to go, if you live here. Even then, there's not much selection. They don't really have to offer it anymore. Prices are still lower on food than anywhere else, and the selection is a little better than other local stores, but the emphasis is definitely on cheapest, not on choice or quality. (If your Wal-Mart is in a more urban area, the choice will probably be better, because they still have to compete with other chain stores. Around here, they've already taken care of that.)

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ME? LET'S just say I'm on a tight budget. Very tight. So tight, that I'd even be happy to take a job in retail--if I could find one at an independent local business, but there aren't many of those. People don't really talk about it much, but they try to avoid working at Wal-Mart if they can. Everybody knows it's kind of the end of the line.

When I first moved back here, I swore that I wouldn't shop at Wal-Mart. But reality sets in. I can make the monthly food budget stretch to fit the month by shopping there, or I can have it not stretch. Shopping at Wal-Mart feels a bit like the end of the line, too.

Once in awhile, we splash out and head for that small city 50 miles in the other direction. They have two big Wal-Marts. Sometimes, it's hard for me to convince my partner to go look at what the other stores have--he's lived here a long time, and old habits die hard. Mostly, it's box stores and malls there, too, these days. I don't think there's even a shoe store downtown.

So that's just another reason to boycott Wal-Mart if you can! The little towns are dead, the small towns are dying, the small cities, well...wouldn't it just be easier if we gave up and made Wal-Mart into a kind of universal government store? We could just all line up once a week for our flour and our sugar, coke and chips and chocolate, a pair of cheap plastic shoes twice a year, some frozen chicken--because, folks, that's exactly where we are headed if we don't fight Wal-Mart now, and others like them pretty damn quick.

If you live in the really rural U.S., you know, because you're living it now, but believe me, it's coming soon to a city near you!
Kris Hughes, from the Internet