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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Wal-mart tramples small-town memories

In my friend's room, you'll find a photo of him flipping off a Wal-Mart and a bumper sticker that spits: \Mall-Wart."" Last week I finally understood his angst. 




I've always had a vague understanding, of course; I've heard many wailing testimonials that claim Mr. Sam's discount stores have squashed corner markets and Ma-and-Pa shops across the country. 




And I've seen the evidence, too. This winter break I went to my friend's hometown, a rusty hub of the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. He grouses about how the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town has annihilated the competition. I saw the barren Pamida supermarket parking lot and the empty storefronts downtown.  




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You get to this city on roads that lead to nowhere but a direction, and most roads, shooting between mine dumps and dumpy pines, seem to be pointing out and far away. So kids hang out at the Wal-Mart, and I don't really blame them. To me the Wal-Mart seemed to offer joy, comfort and cheap electronics to folk in a thousand faceless towns built along some desolation row. 




Those 4,500 Wal-Mart locations around the globe giveth'but also taketh away. But what does it take away? I didn't really know'until I heard that the end was near for that venerable company with more than 100 years of history: Kmart. 




For years, the Troy, Mich.-based firm flopped around like a fish on a line, desperately thrashing about to reinvent itself'unveiling Kathy Ireland and Martha Stewart merchandise, opening Big Kmarts, even reintroducing the ""blue-light special."" But, in the end, squeezed out by up-scale Target and down-home Wal-Mart, Kmart was left gasping on the beach, hoping for a miracle. 




We all know how Sam Walton's blue star rose and Kmart's red K fell. A story in Fortune highlighted a particularly telling statistic: In 14 years, Kmart has earned a total of $3.8 billion'a little more than Wal-Mart earns in six months. Wal-Mart now does about five times the sales of Kmart.  




Then, last Tuesday, Kmart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection'the biggest retail bankruptcy in U.S. history. The discount-retailer giant, which closed 350 stores last year, may be forced to close 500 more, analysts predict. 




When I heard the news, I instantly recalled that can of blue light, blinking through the mists of the 1980s, and flashing above a spot where we could save big money. 




Dad always went straight to automotive, usually to buy a FRAM filter. I would always head first to Kmart's electronics, where I would always be disappointed at its selection of video games, and where I would always flip through old issues of Nintendo Power instead. 




I thought about how my family had bought so many abused pairs of sandals and flip-flops from the Kmart shoe department, which featured MacGregor tennies and pink plastic boots and lots of stuff made in the U.S.A. No ""Made in Indonesia or China"" Reeboks or Nikes at Kmart. Only the no-name running shoes made right here in America.  




I got my favorite jacket at Kmart. It was quite a find. It was long and had a hood to keep the rain off. It was red so I could wear it to Camp Randall. It was even reversible. All for a low, too low, price.  




Above all, I thought about the smell that slapped me every time I stepped into my old Kmart back home. To me it was as obnoxiously addicting as new-car smell, except that Kmart smelled like an '80 Chevy Malibu littered with Corn Nuts and wet wooden planks and pork sausages and gravy. I took a whiff and I knew I was at Kmart, and that some granny and gramps were indulging in the special of the day at The Eatery out back, maybe a bacon cheeseburger or toast and eggs, all at a low, too low, price. 




All these thoughts are tied to a place. It's a place that smells bad and sells cheap things. But it's also a place that will always have a location, open 24 hours, in the landscape of my childhood. As perverse or pathetic as it may seem, Kmart represents to me what those Ma-and-Pa grocers, five-and-dime shops and general stores represent for small-town people in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Mississippi who bemoan the onslaught of big, impersonal institutions bent on taking over their worlds. 




I think I know now why someone would want to flip off an entity like Wal-Mart. It doesn't just shutter family-owned businesses or bulldoze favorite establishments or suck the life from city centers. It demolishes a place of memories. 




And that doesn't just smell. It stinks. 




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