“You love it when a store exceeds your expectations, and you hate it when a store inconveniences you, gives you a hard time, or pretends you’re invisible.” Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart.
Ever since we moved to Oklahoma I have become a frequenter of this place, maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s called Wal-Mart?
Growing up in a region of the country known for its diversity, I didn’t experience the kind of mass-marketed sprawl that Simon did in the Midwest. As we trekked from Portland to Norman, driving down California and across a dry swatch of nothingness that gave way to more highway, I noticed that nearly all of the exit signs advertised the same rest-stops: Denny’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s , and major gas stations. All of the logos were as familiar as national landmarks. I chalked this up to traveling, that truckers like to have the same Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity every morning, that each driver who is on the road can sub in the convenience and comfort of BP’s store layout for home, that the beauty of McDonald’s fries (if there is anything beautiful about fries) is that they taste the same every single artery-clogging time.
Soon after settling in to life in the Sooner State, I noticed that each mile that I’ve come across on Highway 9 is marked by a cluster of stores referred to as “strip malls.” These always-lit, always-open sprawls usually contain a few gas stations or car dealerships, a Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club, a Chili’s or Taco Bell, a McDonald’s or Burger King, a Denny’s or Waffle House, and a church. Or six. Larger strips have a Panda House, Olive Garden, and a Donut King. I get so lost being a passenger ’cause I can’t tell one town from another. We could be driving in circles for all I know.
I could write a litany of complaints about my adventures at Target, K-Mart, and their ginormous brethren, about how the customers are like oversized sofas who move nearly as fast, how the cashiers are either incompetent sea cows or teenagers who probably stole from my purse, how if you go to a Wal-Mart at midnight you discover why birth control should be mandatory in some states. I could go on, but it isn’t fair. After all, I’m back in (read: near) the big city these days.
Now that I’m on Long Island for a bit I’ve noticed how much I’ve missed the smaller shops and quirky tiendas that survive in this area. Granted, my mother lives in a town that is seventeen miles from Manhattan, five miles from two huge, bi-level shopping malls, and whose neighbors range from J-Lo and Derek Jeter to Guatemalan immigrants who need to stand out in the cold to find jobs. It’s diverse alright, but it sure isn’t the Long Island of Billy Joel songs, nor is it the nationwide norm.
Once upon a time, starting your own business was part of the American dream, while these days it seems like people can only survive by becoming a cog in the corporate wheel. I don’t profess to be an expert on corporate strategy or managing a multi-billion dollar business, all I know is what I see in the towns I’ve inhabited. I’ve heard the stories from scared small-store clerks who are suddenly working in the shadow of a construction site belonging to a bigger vending monoliths. I’ve heard how the competition cripples decades-old businesses and I’ve seen how a storefront that has been run the same, well-loved way for thirty years has had to either shift completely or crumble beneath the weight of the massive discount retailer that opened mere minutes away. I can’t flesh out these points of feeling with points of fact, all I can say is that I’m not completely sure I understand what drives companies like Wal-Mart to wholly demolish their area-wide competition everywhere they go, other than the sorta understandable desire for money and power. It makes me sad.
The only giant corporation I can exclude from my shit list is Starbucks, and that’s because I comprehend why people work there: good benefits. They treat their employees well and they started out as a tiny java joint in Seattle, so I can’t completely hate them. But Wal-Mart buying out mom-and-pop shops simply to have a place to put their parking lot is a disgrace, even if the ‘mart’s humble beginnings were those of one Arkansan entrepreneur and his wife throwing 95% of the money they had into starting a discount retail chain back in 1962.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not an anarchist or an ignorant punk rock kid who thinks all big businesses are bad. I know that the majority of the massive monoliths of industry started out small, too, and just found a lucky break or two in the pockets of investors or through wise business decisions. I just wish there was an equal opportunity for the owners of smaller shops to thrive. So in honor of small businesses and the strife they deal with on a daily basis just by existing and damning the man, I present to you my list of…
Smaller Stores And Businesses That Shouldn’t Be Bought Out
[Note: A lot of these are on Long Island, but not all of them.]
364 Port Washington Blvd.
Port Washington, New York
If you’re from Long Island or have family in the area, you might think that I’m kind of cheating by putting this shop on the list, as they’ve franchised and opened three locations across the island. Moreover they have a silly “Italian” uniform policy that includes dopey hats, and they seem to have nurtured their grocery store to grow from playing off of Italian-American stereotypes set to a soundtrack of Sinatra standbys over the loudspeaker that’s turned up at too high of a volume. But I like this shop, it has a good heart. You can by a wide array of products here, ranging from gourmet dried pasta to plain old toilet paper. One of their stores is down the block here, and opened up in a location that my mother remembers used to be a Gristedes, back when she was buying my diapers at the Salem Drugs next door. Salem Drugs is still open, by the way, as it has been for over twenty-five years. May the tiny but mighty thrive.
311 Hempstead Tpke
West Hempstead, New York
I cannot believe this coffee shop is still around. Located in an area of the island known for its douchebag-enrolling college and princess-filled mall, a family-owned and goth-run dessert and caffeine nook, with a new-age and punk rock gear shop upstairs, seems like a recipe for disaster. But it’s been around since I started rockin’ my Doc Martins, and it still stands today. Run by a group of blood-related tiny badasses , the quirky spot used to be packed every night, and according to its Yelp page, it still is. Back when I frequented the ‘Brew they served a mean slice of pie along with Italian sodas. I remember there were overstuffed couches and Christmas lights everywhere, Bikini Kill and Pixies on the jukebox, and one of the walls was upholstered with leopard print velveteen. I even met my first girlfriend there. Considering how much of an ignoramus she was, perhaps I should just blame it on witchcraft.
123 East Main Street
Sharing a door with Guestroom Records, this small cheese-and-gourmet goods shop keeps Simon from wasting away. I don’t know if I like it so much just because it’s the antithesis of Homeland (our ever-prevalent grocery giant) or because it reminds me of Razzano’s , an old, Italian deli in Port Washington that closed years ago. Simon’s favorite feature of Forward Foods is the cheese counter, where he has his name on a card that’s in a reference Rolodex, assuring him that he’ll never consume the same sliver of pungent, moldy cow clots twice in a row. As a vegan, I just really like their spices, and they carry PG Tips, which is a pretty tasty tea. This is also the only local shop where we can get coffee that is almost, but not quite, as pretentious as the beans from Portland’s Stumptown. Take note, I can’t tell the difference between instant Sanka and small-batch Sumatra. I am not a coffee snob.
42 Forest Ave, # 1
Glen Cove, New York
How much do I love Whole Foods, though? Really, where else can I find Lite Tofu, melatonin, wheatgrass shots, and hot, tattooed help? Oh yeah, Rising Tide. This shop has been supplying the dirty hippie high-school kids of Glen Cove with grub since I was in school. With only organic produce, bulk dry goods, and the same juice bar from way back when, I consider Rising Tide to be the New York sister of my favorite hippie-dippie market in Norman, The Earth.
Old Guy Who Fixes Shoes
My cobbler. No, not peach or apple, this guy is the real godfather of soles. Located without so much as a sign, his shop on Main Street in Port Washington is wedged between a cellular phone store and a nail salon. I’m less concerned about competition from Foot Locker or some shoe store crushing his dingy, poorly lit shop, and more nervous about him dying and taking his skills with him. The man must be Larry King’s grandpa, and I don’t ever see anybody else working on the countless pairs that line the workbenches. There are certain trades that are considered “dying arts” and I fear that Mr. Nameless Shoe Repair Guy is an icon of one of them. He reheeled my favorite five-inch pleather designer stiletto Mary Janes, and for that I hold a place for him in my heart and in the shoe nook of my closet.