Book Review: How Wal-Mart is Destroying America: and What You Can do About It by Bill Quinn

How Wal-Mart Is Destroying America:

And What You Can Do About I

by Bill Quinn

Ten Speed Press, 1998

P.O. Box 7123

Berkeley, CA 94707

111 pages, $10 paperback


How Wal-Mart is Destroying America is a folksy, rollicking, slightly rumpled romp on the toes of the retail leviathan the author calls "my pet hate."

Bill Quinn is a retired (at age 84) small-town Texas newspaperman. The "America" in the title of Quinn's book is small-town America, and he's most exercised about the effect Wal-Mart has there.

But if you live in the city, or even in a town large enough to support a Wal-Mart, another big discount chain or two, and a few scattered small-retail survivors, you still need to read this book. It's a splendid, accessible primer on the workings of savage capitalism and the reality behind America's current biggest export: the mythical wonders of the free market.

Quinn says that Wal-Mart's longtime goal has been to carpet America with stores so that no significant population would be outside the 35-mile radius from which stores draw customers. But Wal-Mart is not satisfied with being the biggest game in town; it wants to be the only one. Quinn quotes a former Wal-Mart manager who kept a full-time staffer with the job of gathering prices from any business selling competitive goods; Wal-Mart then undercut those prices.

The result is small towns with ghost business districts. Quinn cites a 1995 Iowa study showing that since Wal-Mart's arrival, the state had lost 50 percent of its clothing stores, 42 percent of variety stores, 30 percent of hardware stores, and substantial numbers in all retail types competing with Wal-Mart.

Having shut down small-town retail, Wal-Mart is now pursuing a policy of consolidation, opening "superstores," which add groceries, auto supply and repair, and other goods and services to the standard Wal-Mart mix. When the superstores open, nearby smaller Wal-Marts close, leaving former host towns with neither native retail nor Wal-Mart. Faithful Wal-Mart shoppers without the means to travel, primarily the poor and elderly, are left with thanks for their past patronage and nowhere to shop.

Quinn is maddest about Wal-Mart killing small towns, but in showing how that happens, he exposes business practices by no means limited to Wal-Mart. He details how Wal-Mart squeezes suppliers (the publisher's letter introducing the book relates the painful experience of Ten Speed Press), relies on sweatshop and child labor in its imported products, and mistreats its own employees.

For the disenchanted, Quinn offers tips on keeping Wal-Mart out of your town, mainly through preemptive zoning, along with citizen activism if Wal-Mart starts sniffing around. He recounts known tricks to watch out for, particularly Wal-Mart's propensity to shop for land through front developers who don't raise the red flag that Wal-Mart does.

But maybe the real answer is to question patronizing Wal-Mart or any other business run the same way. Sure, you may save a few cents, or even a few dollars, making a purchase there instead of at a small store owned by resident human beings. But what do you pay for that savings? If, as Quinn says, a community loses 1.5 jobs for every job Wal-Mart creates, does that change your savings? If you save a few pennies because Wal-Mart sells you a shirt sewn by a Bangladeshi child, does that change your real cost?

Quinn thinks it does.

Reviewed by Doug Pibel, a freelance writer from Snohomish, Washington.

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