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Guilty pleasures, big-box love

SO THERE I am, in a hideous strip mall somewhere in the suburbs, in one of those big, impersonal superstores, and I’m feeling happy.

I’m happy partly because superstores are shrines to tackiness, and I have an affinity for tacky stuff. If my husband had not threatened to divorce me, I’d decorate our roof with enormous plastic reindeer each Christmas. We quarrel about the Christmas tree too, because he’s into restrained, tasteful decorations, while I long for garish, multicolored lights and enough shiny tinsel to completely cover the tree’s unsightly green parts.

But as I maneuver my Titanic-sized shopping cart through the aisles, it’s not just the presence of so much tackiness that fills me with joy. What’s making me happy is the same thing that makes millions of American consumers happy: the presence, under one roof, of so much varied stuff.

I came to this store to buy a new pillow, but as I wander the aisles, it occurs to me that this store, this one store, sells everything I need. Tupperware! We need Tupperware. Blankets! We need those too. Mittens for the baby? Yes. Watches! Bar soap! Toddler underwear enlivened by pictures of Cinderella! Lawnmowers! Milk! And aisles and aisles of Christmas ornaments, including life-sized plastic reindeer, which I gaze at wistfully before rejecting them.

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My husband, trailing grumpily along behind me, is not nearly as happy. He is sneering at the reindeer -- snob! -- but he’s also muttering about the woefully low wages and wan faces of the employees, the distinct likelihood that those Cinderella underpants our daughter wants were made in a foreign sweatshop by a child not much older than she, the effect of this and other superstores on the small businesses that people once shopped at, the environmental damage caused by uncontrolled sprawl.

On the way home -- the trunk stuffed with purchases -- I guiltily confess that I know he’s right. Basically. The superstore phenomenon has done great harm to American communities and landscapes. But then I try to make the feminist case for superstores -- or at least for a kinder, gentler sort of superstore.

It’s not just me, I explain. For frantic women who juggle careers and children, what’s not to love about stores that sell practically everything under one roof? One of my female friends, a union labor lawyer who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Wal-Mart, nonetheless confesses a penchant for Target. “I get a perverse thrill whenever I’m there,” she admits.

And let’s face it: Who would really rather go back to the age of small mom-and-pop stores? How did women live before the advent of the superstore? Actually, we know the answer. They generally didn’t work, which was just as well because they had to spend a couple of days a week meandering from butcher shop to green-grocer to baker, not to speak of all those trips to the drugstore, the shoe store and so on.

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This sometimes gets lost amid the flow of vitriol that’s rightly directed at Wal-Mart, the arch-fiend of superstores. (Do you think it’s a coincidence that “Wal-Mart” sounds so much like “Voldemort,” Harry Potter’s Satanic nemesis?) If there’s a labor law Wal-Mart has not been credibly accused of violating, I’d like to know. (Send me an SASE, and if you’re right I’ll send you a strand of leftover Christmas tinsel.)

There’s good reason to be vitriolic toward other superstores as well, for similar reasons. They offer crummy wages and benefits and make use of overseas suppliers that are not finicky about labor conditions. Their “big boxes” blight the landscape, and the hollow urban cores they produce erode city tax bases.

But the laws of nature don’t require superstores to succeed at the expense of workers and communities. Costco, for instance, is a superstore that pays its workers an average of 65% more than Wal-Mart pays its workforce, yet Costco is thriving. Increasingly, we’re also seeing innovative community-owned stores, such as Powell Mercantile in Wyoming, which offer residents many of the same conveniences as chain superstores but with far more community economic benefit. As the advocacy group Wal-Mart Watch reminds us, it might even be possible to “build a better Wal-Mart.”

If most superstores look less like Superman than Voldemort, the main problem is not their size but the current regulatory climate (or, to be precise, the near-complete lack of a regulatory climate). Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Congress could tighten competition rules to prevent monopolistic big-chain behavior, raise the minimum wage and guarantee health insurance for low-wage workers. Even without congressional action, cities and counties can eliminate tax incentives that favor corporate chains and require multifaceted community-impact studies that link permission for new superstores to open to their willingness to be good community citizens.

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Just don’t take away my superstore.


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