The Woolly Mom-and-Pop Store

It’s times like this that I’m proud to be a Vermonter. Or at least to make the false claim that I was born in Vermont, and not some smarmy Jersey suburb. (Note: I don’t use this line much anymore, as I’m not dating now and therefore have only an occasional need to impress girls and look brawny.) In today’s New York Times, there was an article about how, with the imminent arrival of seven new Wal-Mart superstores, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named Vermont on its annual list of endangered sites. Not just a few covered bridges and steepled churches, mind you. The whole damn state!

But seriously, Vermont, do you really think you can stop Wal-Mart? I mean, this company makes McDonald’s look like a champion of small-town America and civic responsibility. You can protest or sue, like cities in Illinois and Florida are doing. Or you can take it to the voters, like Inglewood, California, did. But the bottom line is that the big-box retailers will invade, one way or the other. However, maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to get them to scale back and play fair with the local community, as they have in Rutland, Vt.

–It’s a little hard to see, but the Rutland Wal-Mart (the anchor store of this shopping center, located right above the parking lot) is actually well integrated into the downtown. The town’s main shopping street goes right by the store and the car-park, and they effectively feed off each other. See the National Resource’s Defense Council case study.

The head of the preservationists, Richard Moe, says that he sees Rutland, and two other medium-sized Wal-Marts in the state, as the way to “do it right,” to use a pre-existing building of sub-galactic proportions, located in the heart of a downtown. From first-hand experience, I can say the Rutland store is not grotesquely oversized–not like the Philly superstore on Columbus Boulevard, with its weather patterns and missing persons department. Perhaps more important, the Rutland Wal-Mart is right across the street from regular shopping stores and a somewhat lively pedestrian scene. Much as it pains me to say this, the arrival of the Rutland Wal-Mart in the early ’90s (I think it was the first in the state) miraculously revived the downtown–which I recall as being depressed and empty when I went there in 1992an Ames and a sex-toy store were the towns only retail offerings. Now shopping in Rutland is completely different: you can pick up your towels at Wal-Mart, head across the street to the old-fashioned barber to get a haircut (for 1/1,000,000 of what John Kerry’s stylist charges), and then trot over to the new-and-improved sex-toy store. It’s all very peachy.

So, I say “rock on, National Trust.” Make it as difficult as possible for Sam Walton’s bastard offspring to invade the Green Mountain State. And then when you must ultimately, inevitably, cave, insist on having more stores like the one in Rutland. Mid-size boxes that at least interact with their communities, as opposed to siphoning locals into cavernous holes on the side of a highway.

And Wal-Mart, if you must destroy small-town communities, why not do so in France?