[Ladd] God Bless the Little Man | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Ladd] God Bless the Little Man

When Wal-Mart first came to my hometown while I was in high school, I was ecstatic. It opened on a side of town where there wasn't a whole lot, and soon other businesses popped up around it. Back then, of course, it wasn't one of those Supercenter monsters; it was the smaller, more manageable kind.

This was a dramatic departure from what we were used to in Philadelphia, Miss. Suddenly, a lot more stuff was available for us to buy and at prices we could better afford, we thought. Previously, there had been two five-and-dimes on the court square, but the old ladies who worked there followed us kids around so closely that we were intimidated out of going in there too often.

That old Wal-Mart didn't have groceries, or a gas station out front, or an optical store, but it did install a pharmacy pretty quickly. You always saw someone you knew there; it was kind of what they call now a "third place"—somewhere people could socialize as they filled up their carts with toilet paper and dish soap. After I left for college—just up the road to Mississippi State—I would go to Wal-Mart immediately upon coming home for a weekend to find all my high school friends and to show off some of my newfound collegiate sophistication. It was the place. Of course, every time I visited I dropped way more money than I could afford on junk I thought I had to have.

It wasn't until I left the state and started making less frequent trips back home that I started noticing what Wal-Mart was doing to Philadelphia. Store after store on the square started closing, including our local drug stores/soda fountains. People lost jobs they'd had for years. The traffic was horrendous in and out of the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Then Sam Walton's minions decided to move the store to another side of town and open one of those Supercenters. They ripped up trees, tore down old buildings and made roads one way in and around the new Wal-Mart to keep the traffic moving. Grocery stores started closing. Over on the old Wal-Mart side of town, the building sat empty. The old McDonald's moved closer to the new store; its building still sits abandoned, tall grass out front.

I started to understand the secret to Wal-Mart's success: run out the local businesses—the ones that Alan Jackson calls the "little man" in his recent hit song. Import cheap stuff from somewhere else that costs very little to manufacture because the plant is off in China or Indonesia or Mexico, where wages are low, thus trading manufacturing jobs for low-end Wal-Mart service positions in the U.S. (That's what we mean by the "free trade" problem, Mr. Barbour.)

The "little man" can't afford the inventory or the low prices to compete. And once he's gone, there's a certain Made in China quality to many of the goods on Wal-Mart's shelves. Today its shoppers choose quantity over quality, convenience over charm, cheap prices over decent jobs and actual free enterprise for their neighbors. Of course, the success of Wal-Mart relies on people thinking that they're getting a good bargain—you know, the Robin Hood Smiley Face—and buying more than they meant to each visit. Studies show that people spend more of their income on unnecessary items when they shop in emporiums like Wal-Mart and Target and Sam's rather than targeting their purchases in smaller, locally owned businesses where they might spend a bit more on a particular item, but not be tempted by junk.

As we all know, Wal-Mart isn't going anywhere unless it's into a bigger space on the other side of town, leaving more hulking blue-and-gray shells littering the countryside. What we can hope for, instead, is that people start to wise up. More and more people are refusing to ever walk through the door (as I do), realizing that making that choice only enables the destruction of our local businesses and, thus, our communities. Citizens and business owners are rebuilding their Main Streets and urging each other to "just say no" to corporate "big boxes" that are ripping apart our cities and our communities.

Of course, Wal-Mart isn't the only violator (just the biggest). Big-box retail of all sorts is killing our local guys. It's sapping the character of our towns, making them all look alike, and ugly to boot (and a "tasteful" sign doesn't help, Madison). The hard truth is that we're killing the little man every time we shop at one of the corporate monsters.

At least once a year, I pause in the middle of clamoring for social justice and racial reconciliation and progressivism to write a column about shopping. Why? Because I believe wholeheartedly in the concept of "Think Global, Shop Local." It makes sense: the buying decisions we make every day affect the entire planet. They help determine the health of our local communities, the availability of jobs for our friends and neighbors, the culture and taste of the things we choose to gather around us and give as gifts, the vibrancy of our cities and their core business districts, crime rates (jobless people commit more of them) and, yes, what the rest of the world thinks of us.

Remember when Kathie Lee Gifford got in hot water? The truth is that too many "American" goods are made in sweatshops abroad. Those bad conditions breed resentment and hostility. That hostility can play out in horrifying ways, as we have seen.

Closer to home, shopping locally will help make our world-class city a reality. If more of us decide to spend even 25 percent—preferably 50 percent and hallejehah, praise be for 100 percent!—on items sold by local businesses or made locally or in the state, we are investing that money into our communities. We are making Jackson—and Mississippi—a cooler place. We are supporting hard-working individuals like Ron Chane (Soma/dwello, etc.) and Ann Herlihy (Fondren Traders) and Carol Daily (Everyday Gardener/Gourmet) and Monroe Jackson (Monroe's Donuts) who are taking the risks to make this city authentic for the rest of us. They deserve our support.

And shopping local is just more exciting. Personally, I'd much prefer to get (or buy) a $10 bag of bath salts made locally at The Perfect Christmas or an original necklace by a Chimneyville artist or a small piece of folk art from The Attic Gallery in Vicksburg than I ever would another turtleneck from The Gap. And one of the lovely things about shopping local is that gift recipients probably won't know the price; it just doesn't matter with authentic gifts.

Challenge yourself this holiday season and year round: invest in Jackson and in your people. Make a budget for your holiday list, then visit our delightful local businesses and choose unique items you can afford. Make a habit of replacing at least one of every four of your trips to a Supercenter with a trip to a local store or shopping center instead. Then, at the end of the day, go home and tip a cup of cider toward your mirror—because you just made a difference.
Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press.

Previous Comments

ID
68768
Comment

Donna, thanks for writing this one. You know, in buying our house a few years, one of the key reasons we chose *not* to move to Madison was that most of the shopping seemed to be at least a 10 minute drive away - and that drive only got you to the latest strip mall, or, at best, to county line road. Now, I know that there have to be some independent stores out there in subdivision land - but I much prefer living in Jacskon - where I can shop at small locally owned businesses, within a few blocks of my home. I wish more people, who decry the lack of jobs in the state, would 'connect the dots,' and start supporting local businesses, instead of sending jobs and dollars elsewhere by shopping at megaplexes.

Author
Kate
Date
2003-11-14T11:34:31-06:00
ID
68769
Comment

Very good article, Donna. I used to love shopping at Wal-mart, too, until I figured out why everything there is so cheap. We dont' have Wal-mart in NY (We've successfully managed to keep out everything except Home Depot, which is relegated to the outer burroughs), but when I'm home I try to avoid it.

Author
Nia
Date
2003-11-14T11:44:00-06:00
ID
68770
Comment

Nia, you should be warned, I heard there are Wally-Worlds on the fringe of the Big Apple... I think I was told Paramus or Wayne -- just a 20-30mn commute from the city. No one is safe! :-)

Author
Knol Aust
Date
2003-11-14T11:59:05-06:00
ID
68771
Comment

OMG! Nooooooooo! Seriously, I think youre right. I hear there's one in Paramus, NJ.

Author
Nia
Date
2003-11-14T13:21:55-06:00
ID
68772
Comment

And there is that East Village K-Mart. It is still there, right? I must say: It was the hippest K-mart imaginable. It was fun to watch all the punks load up on TP and Tide. ;-) But I'm sure it had the same effect on the local pharmacies and such. Giuliani's New York definitely more chain-ridden than before.

Author
ladd
Date
2003-11-14T13:49:17-06:00
ID
68773
Comment

Donna, I agree with you on all points you make in your well written article. Though some of the businesses in your town square may have been overpriced or didn't operate extended hours to serve their customers, I am sure many tried hard to compete and couldn't. Walmart also started in a small town, but there is no comparison who they were back then compared to who they are today. I could write extensively about Walmart and it's history, but the fact is I hate Walmart, yet sometimes we all seem to have to shop there. The numbers that came out last week showed that Walmart, one company, was responsible for one fifth of all the imports in this country. They are more than just a big corporation, they are the largest of all time. We made them that way. I learned long ago to spread my money around. The more I age the more important it becomes to me where I will or will not spend my money. I shop now and then at Walmart on a "need to" basis and never a "want to" basis.

Author
Howard
Date
2003-11-17T19:11:09-06:00
ID
68774
Comment

Thanks, Howard. It strikes me as very wise to simply spread your wealth around a bit to local businesses, no matter how small or how large your bank account. I must say, I never walk through the door of Wal-Mart anymore (and it's not hard once you go cold turkey). But if everyone would simply cut back, it would make a difference in our communities. Cheers to you for doing your part.

Author
ladd
Date
2003-11-17T22:55:38-06:00
ID
68775
Comment

I don't like Wal-Mart either and never shop there when I can get what I need somewhere else; however, in many small towns, Wal-Mart has run just about everyone else out of business. Smaller chains, such as Fred's, The Dollar Store, Family Dollar Store and Dollar Tree, etc. will have some items, but some things you can only get at Wal-Mart now (unless you want to travel 50 miles or so). Finding things totally outside of even small chains is difficult. What infuriates me is that once Wal-Mart runs the other stores out of business by underpricing them, they raise their own prices (locally). Prices will vary from town to town on everything except items featured in their flyers. Worse, once they have a stranglehold on local business, the variety of items begins to drop. You may find a larger variety in Wal-Marts in larger cities where there is competition, but in the small towns, there is a shrinking of the variety and kinds of things that one can buy. The store is the same size, there are just larger displays of each item they do offer. I could go on and on about other chains (such as Barnes and Nobles who stifle the variety of writing that is offered by refusing those books which are not megasellers), but this is long enough. I hate same/same/same chains with a passion. I even pay a little more than absolutely necessary for things like internet connection, choosing the local internet provider over the nationwide biggies. I can be a very cheap person, (on a tight budget, it's necessary), but I find other ways to cut costs, and find that the better service and quality in the goods and services I buy is frequently more than enough to offset the difference in the initially cheaper items.

Author
C.W.
Date
2003-11-17T23:35:29-06:00
ID
68776
Comment

Found this article on Alternet that fits the discussion of Wal-Mart, wages, and the little man. It is a follow-up to another article written on Wal-Mart earlier this year(link). Here's a sample from a reader: "We used to have a nice little town in Bentonville, business in abundance around the square. One by one the shoe shops and dress stores all went under, crippled by the big demon." Read the story by clicking here...

Author
Knol Aust
Date
2003-11-18T15:52:02-06:00

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