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Why I Love Wal-Mart

George Will today decries what the Post called "a legislative mugging masquerading as an act of benevolent social engineering," Maryland's decision to pass a health care statute that just so happens to apply to only one of the state's employers: Wal-Mart. It's no secret that many liberals despise Sam Walton's big box store, complaining about its obsessively low prices, a dearth of union employees, and its threat to the small-town city center. But this loathing has a broad base: aesthetic revulsion to WalMart has a deep well even among the wine-drinking conservative set:

Outside the most heavily urbanized areas, Wal-Mart typically builds on the edge of town, putting up a huge (and butt-ugly) big box building surrounded by acres of bare concrete parking lots. There are few sights in the American scene less attractive or appealing to the eye.

Now, I'm not about to say that Sam Walton birthed a beautiful baby. On the other hand, I always find it a bit rich when people with expensive tastes lecture me on how much Wal-Mart is a plague on the traditional small town. Maybe it is, but (a) why do they not want small town citizens to have access to even a fraction of the consumer goods they so love, and (b) where are these idyllic hamlets they champion?

I spent two of my adolescent years in the sleepy little college town of Big Rapids, Michigan. In those days, our biggest brand stores were a small J.C. Penney outlet and a decrepit KMart. We had three or four small grocery stores, a number of folksy gift shops, a sporting goods store and a couple of pharmacists who also functioned as the town's best source of new literature. Charming? Sure, although less so in the freezing Michigan winters. You could stock up on country crafts and hard candies at the Emporium, spend a bunch of your paycheck on low-quality overpriced vegetables, and make the choice between overpriced sneakers at the local sporting goods store or the hour and change drive to Grand Rapids and its malls.

Ah, life without Wal-Mart! It was a Rouseauesque wonderland--and about as pleasant as you'd expect such an Erewhon when it met gritty reality. Is Wal-Mart butt-ugly? Yep. But I'm willing to bet that most of the Wal-Haters didn't learn to love science fiction because the widest source of good books--better than the drug-store potboilers--was the used bookstore and comic shop. Wal-Mart is hardly cosmopolitan, but if it merely stocks the latest from Oprah's book club, Toni Morrison comes in worlds above the non-scifi literature of my youth. [1] Or to appeal to Prof. Bainbridge's preferences: if he'd lived next door to me, where exactly was he going to buy his wines? Before Wal-Mart's big-box competitor Meijer, a couple of package shops that mostly catered to college students were the major source of vino. This may not be the preferred choice of the exquisitely educated pallate, but it did increase the quality and variety of locally available wine and encourage the other shops to improve their game.

Were I growing up these days, I don't suppose I'd miss Wal-Mart that much. Now that Amazon has become the online equivalent of a box store, just about any American with a mailbox and a credit card can tap into the vast mainstream of American consumerism. (Then again, not all Americans have access to these, and one suspects Wal-Mart helps them some.) But whatever the case, I'll always think of The Scourge of Progressive Capitalism not as some horrible invader that ruined my community, but the place that gave my old hometown a reasonable place to shop. Nostalgiaville always seems prettiest to those who didn't live there.

[1]: I'm probably undercutting my own argument here. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon remains in a dead heat with Tess of the D'Urbervilles for Most Boring Volume of Piffle Forced on Me in High School English Class. Still, it would have been nice to have the option to reject it in favor of something better.


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