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Get thee behind me, Wal-Mart

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

During my exploratory visit to Juneau a year ago, I met a man who told me I was stupid to even consider moving here. There were a number of reasons: icy roads, high prices, elitists, questionable patriotism. But mainly his contempt for this isolated city boiled down to Wal-Mart. There was none.

Stupid me - it all sounded appealing. I moved to Juneau and so, it appears, will Wal-Mart, with The Home Depot in its shadow. There is no escape.

I am not a Wal-Mart man. I don't expect to shop there. But I understand the sentiment. We live in a place not necessarily evolved for human habitation so much as tourist visitation and legislative sessions, and things cost a whole lot, often with poor service, at stores that aren't open when you need them.

On that same exploratory trip the hotel clerk warned me to dine before 9 p.m., when the town closes up. I can never be sure that lentils - lentils - will be in stock when I go to the supermarket. Then last summer, when my sons wanted to play Wiffle ball, we could not find one. We tried toy stores, grocery stores, combinations thereof and a marine store that someone recommended. We had no luck. Maybe Juneau was just having a bad day. Later we picked one up in Ketchikan and brought it home on the ferry - to my knowledge the only Wiffle ball in Alaska's capital. It is a prized possession. Wal-Mart could have changed all that.

Wal-Mart, the Arkansas empire, conquered Ketchikan before getting here, and my friends there have mixed feelings. They shop there; they admit it. They've noticed that everyone in town wears the same clothes because the casual clothing shops folded. They've noticed that while gathering the items that they need, the allure of cheap goods that they don't need is overpowering. They've noticed a little decline in fishing tackle prices, though Wal-Mart doesn't carry much of the higher-end stuff that serious fishermen buy. They've noticed a higher volume of shoppers coming in by ferry from surrounding villages.

My brother, who grew up with me in Ketchikan in the '80s and, like me, has been gone since, says Wal-Mart killed the city. It's an easy target. Putting a big box on the edge of town and sucking the downtown streets clear of shoppers is the classic American formula for city rot. I'm not sure it applies in Ketchikan, though. There's no shortage of shoppers or little shops in downtown Ketchikan. It's just that few of them are real anymore; they're tourists and curio shops. In one sense it's kind of nice to see a box of hardened commerce on the outskirts of a once-proud utilitarian city.

Still, Wal-Mart is nasty. There are essentially two camps in America: those who eschew retail evil and those who defend it because of cheap coat hangers and hot dogs. Some of those who defend it in the Lower 48 ride RVs from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart in a custom almost as cult-like as the shopping greeter. These are the people who need a road built to Juneau - so they can camp at our Wal-Mart parking lot.

Those who don't, and would never, road-trip to Wal-Marts have diverse reasons. Some focus on labor practices, whether in the store or overseas. Some want to go back in time, when things seemed more personal.

And some, like me, just have an inexplicable aesthetic drive. People used to call it good taste. It's true. I am too good for Wal-Mart, no matter the price. I am the elitist. I help make this town what it is.

None of us, anywhere, has any control over Wal-Mart's hunger. The chain will go where it wants, when it wants. It will most likely follow through on its plans here, and somehow we'll get by. But to Wal-Mart or not to Wal-Mart is a deeply personal choice, and perhaps the most important one that any American can make, for it defines the self-image if not the soul.

A few years ago my son, then 7, told me that his mother and I were different kinds of people. In itself, it was not all that astute. But when I asked for elaboration, he said: "You don't shop at Wal-Mart."

Somebody has to be an example to the boy.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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