I live in a big city. Plenty of shopping options. Access to anything we need. Access to internet shopping if I’m feeling too poorly to drag around through hot parking lots (it’s a health thing, not part of this story). I usually choose small stores before big box or supermarkets because it’s just easier than having to walk eighty miles (even if it is indoors and air-conditioned) to pick up toilet paper. I don’t shop for entertainment, but I like being entertained when I shop. I enjoy personal service. I like seeing, sometimes buying, the unique or interesting items from hither and yon that appear on the shelves. I like handing money to the owner or to the long-time store employee as the owner visits with customers and straightens items on the shelves.

Which brings me to Walmart.

I have deliberately avoided the company because I don’t like the way they market themselves as gung-ho pro American while studiously working to bring middle class shopkeepers and owners on Main Street to financial ruin, killing the hearts of communities across the very America they so claim to love.

But three years ago, I entered a Walmart. We were on an extended vacation in the mountains of North Carolina and beyond. My laptop had broken down dead and for reasons that didn’t exist a generation ago, we couldn’t just say, “Oh well too bad” and carry on with our vacation. We needed a laptop. In retrospect we probably could have made other arrangements, but we ended up in Walmart because there wasn’t another place to buy a computer for 75 miles in either the right or wrong directions.

The greeters and checkout clerks at the front of the store were full of smiles and helpful in their guidance. That was nice. But once within, deep within, yikes! The chaos of the aisles, the crap crap and more crap filling the aisles, the slovenly presentation and total disrespect for customers and employees alike were mind boggling. I got the laptop off the shelf — no help from the greasy-dirty, slovenly, gum-snapping employees nearby — made my purchase and fled, then shuddered and showered away the experience with a sense of assurance that I would never enter a Walmart again.

Until this week when I did. Twice.

We are currently in another part of the country building a small house and camping inside of the house as we work. Literally, camping. Our bedroom is a tent in the corner. Our working toilet area has cardboard walls which are super-stapled to the studs (no dry-wall, yet), the cardboard coming from the box that held the new toilet. We tote water to the sink for washing, which drains into buckets, which we then tote to the toilet, which, you may be relieved to know, drains away to the actual, functioning septic tank.

There are other adventurous features to our temporary living condition, but needless to say, we’re operating for a few weeks under circumstances that we didn’t adequately visualize. There was stuff we needed.

Several collapsible jugs to hold water, which we collect at the town well (ours is contaminated); many terry-cloth bar towels – the striped set for drying our hands, the plain ones for drying the cooking and dining items; a fire extinguisher (you don’t just set a Kitchen Aid 6-burner stove top onto saw horses without an emergency action plan); a multi-outlet junction box to power everything because oddly, we do have electricity, so I refer once again to the fire extinguisher. Walking shoes. I brought flats from home and really? I should have brought sneakers.

Anyway, we needed stuff. A variety of stuff and where better than Walmart that had already encamped in spite of my protestations against corporate ugly, and besides, don’t they enjoy a reputation for providing all the stuff anyone could possibly need? We needed stuff.

I grimaced on my way into the store only to be surprised that not only were the greeters friendly, but throughout, everything was clean and shiny. Kind of a new store, as it happens, but the items on the shelves (crap crap and more crap) were displayed with care. The employees within were crisp, starched and smiling. There was a seeming innate respect for both customers and personnel. I thought to myself, “Okay, this is acceptable retailing.” I collected the items on our list, made payment to a smiling clerk and left with a smile on my own face. Later I told my husband, “That didn’t suck.”

The next day I returned for additional provisions. This time there were a few more customers; many, actually. I stood in the checkout line and had a chance to look around. Only one word came to mind:

Herd.

I’ve stood in many lines — airports, movie theatres and supermarkets – that all moved too slowly, but I never before had that impression. Herd. I was reminded of the characters waiting in line for soylent green, nutritious chips in a story that introduced many thriller fans to a unique form of recycling.

Forgetting about the crap crap and more crap in the surrounding carts – and there is no justifying the purchase of anything in the majority of those carts unless you’re all for supporting Chinese manufacturing and their plastics industry – it was the people themselves. Staring off into space and moving inches at a time for a turn at checkout, I felt like we were playing zombie drones in a horror movie.

I was herded, too, and eventually went on my way. Sadly, that for the indignity of being treated like cattle, the products I bought at Walmart were comparably available at the family owned hardware, camping supply and small markets in the same area for no more money than what Walmart charged. Where were the savings? There were no savings. We’ve been had.

And the corporate tactics! If it was an irritating curiosity before, I am now fully alert that money is over-all wild-wasted when shopping in Target, Walmart, or any of the warehouse price clubs. This is the sort of corporate tactic I mean — when I have to wait twenty minutes for the prescription at my local Target every single time I pre-order a refill, they know I’m going to wander around and collect crap that I don’t need while I wait. They didn’t stick that pharmacy in the back of the store for nothing.

My lack of control is my problem, not theirs. And I quit shopping at Target a long time ago for that very reason. But it’s crystal clear to me now, that the mega-mart corporations aren’t in business to give you the best deal, so they don’t. They’re in business to make money and mostly they’re successful for the effort.

Not by me, they won’t be. Not anymore.

The town with the Walmart I entered twice has an aged and existing Main Street that thrives with much concerted effort in spite of Walmart thanks to a healthy tourist industry (even in this economy). The street is filled with busy galleries, restaurants and shops, many filled with locally-crafted, museum-quality products to appeal to visitors who come from around the country and Europe. But like old-time USA, there are also shops up and down the block offering anything one would need to make a home. There is nothing in the charming kitchen shop priced outside of normal, nothing Walmart offers that isn’t smack in the middle of town, where the parking is also free and the service is dignified while friendly. The fire extinguisher available at the family-owned hardware store the next block over comes at the same price as the one from Walmart. I’m sorry we didn’t go to the family-owned hardware store. I won’t make that mistake again.

I know that some towns no longer have many shopping choices thanks to the Big Box Monuments To Community Ruination, but I encourage people who do have a choice to frequent stores owned by your neighbors, who will appreciate the business.

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Meg Livergood Gerrish

Meg Livergood Gerrish

Partnered with her husband, Meg Gerrish has combined their love of a specific social beverage and her compulsion to give opinions whether anyone asks or not into the website Unoaked Chardonnay. Their review approach is unorthodox, compared to most, but their passion for finding and trying all the unoaked Chardonnays available is unwavering. It’s a mission: “Our hobby, our job, someone has to do it.” Meg worked many years for an ad agency that became wildly famous as soon as she retired. She is currently working on a novel, as are most people.