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“I would never go to Walmart!” I don’t recall what I said that evoked this remark. It was at the church coffee table, and I think I brought the W-word up in some casual, iconic sense. But I clearly offended her yuppie sensibilities. It was almost as bad as if it had been the F-word. (Note to loyal readers: I only use “sheep” in print.)

What I wanted to snap in return was, “That’s because you can afford not to.”

For a while I lived in a town with a Main Street, USA, and let me tell ya, those small businesses are pricey. You’re not paying “just a little more” (and who gets to tell you and your budget what “a little” means?) for “better service,” you’re paying at least ten percent more with every chance of the shopkeeper being surly. OK, this was New England and I’m not white. Always got to have that as a possible factor, that being a primary annoyance of the non-whiteness deal. But still.

I’m not talking about the niche stores–comics, hobbies–I’m thinking of the main things, like clothing and food and what I think of as “drugstore stuff” like toilet paper. Necessities. You can’t get on without them, and more and more these days, they’re harder to come by on what America has in its 99% pockets. Every time you go to Walmart and buy some jeans and Turtle Wax and the economy-size jumbo pack, with some toys for the kids, you save at least $10-20. That’s real money to me.

My Walmart is such a long bus ride away that the driver stops in the middle and collects an extra fare. So the richest people in America get none of my money. Who does?

Walgreens. Macy*s. Best Buy. Shaw’s. I used to get toys at K-B and clothes at Lane Bryant, but they’re gone around here. And for all that miscellaneous stuff like shower curtains and lamps, there’s Target (which is merely an inconvenient dogleg of a ride from here). Note the shocking lack of small business names. There are some smallish ones: Boomerangs (an upscale dead-cheap Goodwill’s benefiting AIDS Action), MacKinnons (a butcher store where even the poor can eat high-quality meat)–but in both cases, money is a factor.

I mourn some small business types bitterly: Remember the local hardware store, filled with bins of loose nails and weird widgets that stirred a sense of longing creativity? The most important resource these stores had was the old guy in the back who knew everything. Ace does a decent job, but the dusty dimly-lit romance is gone, and although our local one has old guys, they don’t have walrus mustaches and dirty hands, and are thence less trustworthy.

But the market is what the market is. Unlike most of you, I actually know a blacksmith, who is the son of some friends. I don’t know if he shoes horses per se (he’s an artist), but he has those rare skills. There are still blacksmiths, because there are still horses who at last check still had feet–but horses are a luxury item now, and you don’t have a smithy in every small town. But we don’t think of the blacksmiths as having been run out of business by Ford, we think of it as history, if not progress. (Don’t get me started on how idyllic the pre-industrial age was, or you’ll know a lot more about really yucky things than you’d like right before dinner.)

Before the current cycle of robber barons (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), the free market system benefited the poor. You made money by offering the best goods at the lowest prices, and if Joe down the street was doing a better job, you were tanked just as surely as if Joe was a multi-millionaire corporation. Now I know that Joe had hard work and ingenuity, instead of the biggest bankroll in the industry, but Jane Customer went home with the same change in her purse either way.

So don’t just mumble something liberal about Walmart, do something to change its abuses. If you’re a mumbler, you already know to think globally and act locally: Actively vote, volunteer, and organize. Support the unions, which despite their own problems are the last fence against employee abuse. Demand fair trade on a national and political level, and the enforcement of human rights issues against countries with sweatshops. (Thereby increasing the poverty and misery of their inhabitants, who otherwise don’t have jobs at all, but you can’t have it all; I mean that without sarcasm.)

The people who need their $20 in Walmart and who work the two jobs can’t do that as effectively as you can anyway. So just remember that every time you sneer at Walmart, you’re sneering at the poor who keep them going out of necessity. And then go out and say, “I would never live in a country with rampant poverty and unemployment!”

I’m waiting.

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