Monday, January 31, 2005


I was in Wal-Mart the other day.

Occasionally, my wife and I tow along our bouncing baby daughter to stock up on diapers and infant sundries. The girls roll off with the cart to browse the glossy aisles; I stumble off in my usual Wal-Mart daze, deepened by stale pop music and the perceptible sixty hertz flicker of the vast florescent sky, reaching to the store's horizon. I negotiate the maze of aisles, stocked to surfeit. While my family shops, I become reflective, tense, bemused, amazed and lost.

There's nothing like a trip to Wal-Mart to get some perspective on where we are in human history. Let's face it---we might as well call Wal-Mart and all the other megastores competing with it Blank-Mart -- one big collective super-mart. Just fill in the blank with your megastore of preference.

Wal-Mart has competition coming from wannabes like Target, Meijer, Fred Meyer, Costco, and many other superstores. Each of these big stores has carefully constructed the same essential impersonal consumer experience. Their shelves are loaded to the corrugated steel ceilings with the same megabrands -- Nabisco, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Sony, Black and Decker, etc. Together, the mega-super-mondo-Mount Everest-sized shopping stores produce the same humbling shopping experience, regardless of who's doing the selling. They're big; you're small. Products made outside of your immediate community from as far away as China are cheaply available in a polished aisle near you. "Blank-Mart -- where everyone must shop." It's all the same -- utterly perfected mass-produced products sold in huge stores that could've been designed by Albert Speer.

It's almost as though a giant mountain was discovered, with hinges and a vast seam at its base. It's somehow lifted open like a gigantic, creaking cellar door, revealing the world's source of Blank-Mart wares. "So that's where all this stuff comes from," I imagine while staring at fourteen brands of paper shredders.

Sam Walton was a clever retailer. He realized that a giant store could be a small mall. Actually, the idea of a superstore isn't even his. We will have to give our hyper-capitalist French friends credit for the Wal-Mart retail model. The hypermarché was invented by the retail group Carrefour. They combined a supermarket and a department store to create a mall under one roof, where presumably shoppers could amass all their worldly belongings into one gigantic shopping cart. Hypermarkets are now tickling the toes of many a Main Street, all over the planet---springing up just like Rocky and Bullwinkle, popping out of the ground with the daisies. *Poof!* Everything and anything for next to nothing.

I don't really propose that Blank-Mart is evil, or should be stopped. Blank-Marts have made a lot of things accessible to people who wouldn't normally be able to afford them. While people stress over Wal-Mart landing outside of their town like an alien space saucer and sucking out the vitality from their little Main Street, they should ask themselves whose fault it is. People vote with their dollars more than any other way. If they really were concerned about keeping a quaint, small-town shopping district in their hometown, they'd simply ignore the Wal-Mart and continue to pay higher prices on Main Street. "Just say no," as Nancy Reagan used to say.

But they don't say no, by and large. Apparently, life is better without a cute Main Street. And anyway, let's say they keep Wal-Mart out of the neighborhood. Well, it's still a Blank-Mart world out there -- WalMart's just a part of it. People will still go to Target and Costco to buy their Crisco. They might even get better deals online with virtual stores like Amazon. I suppose one could argue that Amazon is destroying Main Street too.

So, we have the big manufacturer on one end of the retail equation --say, Nabisco -- and the deal-hungry consumer on the other. Blank-Mart is in the middle, connecting the two. Who's the most empowered in the equation? Could it possibly be customers armed with dollars who have a moral responsibility to make the right choices? Aren't those shoppers just looking the other way when they go to Blank-Mart? Does personal responsibility and morality fit into the equation at all? Or should we satisfy ourselves with condemning the big bad corporations who make our lives dull by having to choose between Blank-Mart A and Blank-Mart B?

Remember Clinton's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy for gays in the military? That's a tag line for this whole postmodern era, one that's right up there with 'Save the Rainforest' as a SUV bumper sticker slogan. Keep the morality vague, and please, just don't ask, OK? Don't judge and don't be judged. I'll bet even the most ardent Wal-Mart protestors have a few hidden receipts for diapers from Wal-Mart. Just don't ask -- because they aren't telling. There's a lot of winking and shrugging in this era of moral relativity. Perhaps the price we have to pay is wearing our eyes inside-out, looking for size three diapers in the flickering light of an anonymous Blank-Mart.

I also think that the argument that quaint Main Streets are dying and being replaced by impersonal Blank-Marts can be petty bourgeois bloviating. Not too long ago, our ancestors would've killed for a Blank-Mart, and willingly rejected the whole quaintness of their kerosene-lit, horse-and-buggy dirt-paved Main Street in return for the packaged conveniences we have now. They had no choice. We do. The talk about preserving Main Street seems to have a lot to do with aesthetics, but not practicality or utility. Preserving Main Street for its own sake seems rather a postmodern obsession. Affordable diapers be damned.

Honestly, I lament the passing of Main Street too. But I wonder: Need Blank-Mart kill a vital, unique Main Street? Couldn't Main Street benefit from Blank-Mart? All those big brand items we find in Blank-Mart are as impersonal and outside of the local community as Blank-Mart itself. Should a tree-lined, intimate, beautiful and historic Main Street really besmirch itself by hawking pricier versions of Depends diapers and Viagra pills? Don't Blank-Brands actually belong in Blank-Mart?

Maybe Blank-Mart gives Main Street the opportunity to be the main street again -- where the community's unique heritage and residents can gather and sell their local treasures. Their stuff wouldn't have to share shelf space with Metamucil or fake houseplants from China. Let Blank-Mart carry the banal but ever-so-necessary products from Nabisco, Johnson and Johnson, General Mills, ADM, and the rest of the behemoth suppliers between here and Asia. I'm glad that stuff is sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights at Blank-Mart. Let Main Street feature art, food and entertainment from the people who actually live there. Removing the mega-corporate products from Main Street and sticking them in a Blank-Mart could make Main Street a relief, not necessarily a post-commercial wasteland trying to compete with überretail hell.

Sometimes, I do wonder about what Blank-Mart represents. I wonder if it denotes the pinnacle of our materialist existence. How much further can consumerism go past this point in history? Is everything else that follows just a refinement on Blank-Mart's hypermarket model?

A personal computer represents the acme of human technological achievement. The first prehistoric tool, presumably some kind of blunt stone, allowed the creation of a slightly more refined tool -- and then so on, and so on -- compounded improvement for thousands of years until there came a humming computer, connected to millions of others into a vast web of knowledge and empowered individuals. At this point, computers can only get still-yet faster, still-yet smaller, still-yet cheaper and presumably more clever and intelligent in the process.

Most of the people in human history would've probably killed for this little whirring box we call garbage after two or three years of usage. Though small, a computer is vast, full of millions of circuits and bits of code. The Mac I am typing on right now isn't fully knowable by any one person anymore -- not in the way that a car engine might be. While it shrinks in physical size, the computer's internal dimensions expand like the Universe itself. The Tool of Tools.

Similarly, Blank-Mart seems like the paragon of material achievement in the same way that a computer is the apotheosis of knowledge and communication. The Store of Stores. All the consolidation that has taken place in the last thirty years or so seems to be pointing to some kind of logical end. I just don't know what it is. I wonder, and I puzzle, and I keep asking about where we are headed with all these modern mega-miracles. Which takes me back to being reflective, tense, bemused, amazed and lost in the highly polished aisles of Wal-Mart.

After walking the aisles, I am reminded of a Star Trek episode called Is There In Truth No Beauty? In it was the Medusan ambassador Kollos, a member of a species that was so ugly that humans would go insane if they saw him. He was kept in a box. People had to wear special blocking visors over their eyes to prevent themselves from going bananas over seeing the Medusan when the box's lid opened. Not even Spock was immune.

I keep wondering if strolling the aisles of Blank-Mart is the same as staring at the insides of the Medusan's little box. Or maybe that's where all the stuff on the shelves comes from, from under that big mountain. Something about all this material wealth is maddening, no matter who gets to sell it.

The next time we need diapers, I could use a pair of those special glasses to keep myself sane.