Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As American as... Walmart?

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LANDOVER HILLS -- The shopper in the checkout line in front of me had six cases of Evian water, three bottles of Pine Sol cleanser, a gallon of Clorox, two containers of isopropyl alcohol (50 per cent strength), a can of Pledge furniture spray and the DVD of a movie called Unknown, starring Liam Neeson.

"Looks like you've got quite an evening planned," I ventured.

"Truth is," the shopper turned and said, "after my morning jog, that water is the only thing I can get down."

We were circling our wagons at Walmart, just across the Maryland state line from Washington, D.C., on the 50th birthday of the most successful retail business in the history of the universe -- the Higgs boson of bargains.

It also was the eve of the 236th birthday of the United States of America, which was evident from the flags -- they were stitched in New Jersey -- that were hanging from the ceiling of the gigantic store and sprouting from every aisle.

I had come in for bug spray as we tried to endure the hottest, steamiest, wettest, most punishing week of a ferocious young summer. Already, the humidex had exceeded 37 C for seven straight days with at least another five days to come, and more than one million people in the Washington metro area -- including us -- had lost electric power for a day or more after a violent midnight thunderstorm. But our nearest Walmart was pulsing with light and crowds and discounts as if it hadn't even drizzled.

The man with the bleach and fancy French water turned out to be a retired railroad electrician named Woody Newman.

Like almost everyone else in the Landover Hills superstore, he had driven out from the nation's capital, where Walmart has been stymied for decades by liberal activists decrying the parallel evils of non-unionized capitalism and low prices.

"What does Walmart mean to the United States of America?" I asked Newman as the clerk rang up his liquids.

"Jobs," he crisply replied.

"Jobs," he repeated. "I know there's a lot of fractious (debate) about the wages, but they got everything you need and they got a lot of people working who might not be."

The twin birthdays of the republic and the retailer had come at a time of murderous weather and a melancholy national mood. Two detached and wealthy men were running for president, Congress was a partisan sewer, the unemployed still numbered in the tens of millions, the war in Afghanistan was in its 11th futile year, and yet 88 per cent of Americans polled by Gallup said that they agreed with the statement "I am very patriotic," the same as a quarter-century ago.

Some 77 per cent said "America has the best system of government" and 84 per cent said that the United States was "the best country in which to live."

Walmart stock was up $1.40 on Tuesday to an all-time record high.

On a shelf in a far corner of the Landover Hills store, I found a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Made in America -- My Story by the late Sam Walton, the Arkansas farm boy, pigeon seller and Eagle Scout who opened the first Wal-Mart (it still had a hyphen back then) in the town of Rogers on July 2, 1962. The tag on the cover said LIST $15.00/WALMART PRICE $12.00.

"Quite a few small-town stores have gone out of business during the time of Wal-Mart's growth," Walton noted in 1992, shortly before he died from bone cancer, leaving an empire with half a trillion dollars in annual sales and a million and a half employees. "Some people have tried to turn it into this big controversy... like they were whales or whooping cranes or something that has the right to be protected.

"What happened was absolutely a necessary and inevitable evolution in retailing, as inevitable as the replacement of the buggy by the car and the disappearance of the buggy-whip makers. The small stores were just destined to disappear, at least in the numbers they once existed, because the whole thing is driven by the customers, who are free to choose where to shop."

I wished Mr. Newman a glorious Fourth, paid for my OFF! repellent (made in Canada) and drove to a vacant lot in northeast Washington where the city's first Walmart is probably, putatively going to be constructed, possibly before the end of next year.

There, I met a 30-year-old mechanical engineer, Naval Reserve officer and community blogger named Joe Finley who has been chronicling the positive and negative reaction to the arrival of Sam Walton's little general store.

Should it ever actually be built, Washington's first Walmart -- and another half-dozen that are planned around the District -- will go a long way toward assuaging one of Michelle Obama's signature grievances: the unavailability of fresh vegetables and fruits in urban America's "food deserts."

From where we were parked, Joe Finley said, you'd have to go a couple of miles in any direction to find an apple or a head of broccoli.

Or a case of Evian, should you be mad enough to jog in this weather.

"What does Walmart mean to the United States of America?" I asked Joe Finley as we stood in the swelter behind a KFC and gazed out at the empty field.

"The first horrible word that comes to mind is consumerism," he replied. "But it's a huge employer and is it really a bad thing to charge the cheapest price?"

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 j6

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