Not long ago a man said to me, "A busy man is a happy man," but he did not look busy or happy.
The man is a grocer, the owner of what is literally a mom and pop store. His wife is almost always beside him at the counter. If she isn't, she comes out of the back room when she hears my voice. This is not because I am special (although she makes me believe I am); I have seen her do this with other customers, too. I suppose it is good business, but I believe she does this because she truly enjoys visiting with her customers. And so we stand on opposite sides of the counter for a few minutes exchanging small talk, and then husband or wife bags up my purchases with surgical precision and I leave the store. These days I rarely leave because there is someone waiting behind me.
I pass this store regularly as I drive about town. Sometimes I stop in even though I don't really need anything. Occasionally I am with our teenage sons. They are polite boys, but as I stand at the counter talking I do not miss their fidgeting. This makes me smile. I remember my own mother doing the same interminable thing to me when I was a sprite, visiting at the tailor, the card store, the pharmacy, and all the other mom and pop stores she frequented. I wanted to throw myself on the pen and pencil set.
Two weeks ago a new Walmart opened in Simi Valley. At 7 a.m. shoppers were already lined up outside the store. The new Simi Valley store has been dubbed "Walmart East" because there is already a Walmart on the west end of Simi, on the same street. On the day of the Simi East opening, a new Walmart also opened in Oxnard. For the mathematically inclined, that would be roughly 152,000-square feet of new stores in all.
"It's a great day in Simi Valley when we see a business open," the president of the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce told a reporter. "It will also keep shoppers here on the east end of Simi Valley rather than going to the Walmart over in Porter Ranch." As if everything between is bleached salt flats.
I am not unfairly singling out Walmart. No, there are plenty of other Big Boxes and they are not hard to find. Simi Valley (no, I'm not picking on them either) has three Target stores within five miles of each other. Here in Ventura, if I timed all the traffic lights, I could probably hold my breath on the drive between the two Targets near our home. Not long ago our Targets started selling groceries: now you can wander through electronics, and then turn down the refrigerated foods aisle. There's also Costco and Sam's Club and lots of other Big Boxes whose names escape me because I don't shop much, and when I do I try not to do it inside an airplane hangar that carries forty different brands of bubble gum, although I very much like bubble gum.
Our country is changing.
A number of years ago I passed through the small coastal town of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. While there I clacked through the screen door of Perry's Bait & Tackle. I had stepped up on the establishment's front porch to read a piece of paper taped to the window. The notice read, "Walmart in Murrells Inlet? Get the facts, Pro and Con. Wednesday at 6:30pm. Family Life Center Belin Memorial United Methodist Church. An Evening for Our Future."
Perry's Bait & Tackle was owned by Winston Perry and it sat plumb on the water, on a broad and lovely swath of God's own greenery. When I stepped in the shop, Winston himself ambled slowly to the front of the store to meet me. He wasn't particularly friendly until he figured out I hadn't come to buy his land and his store. But I liked Perry and his Bait & Tackle immediately because the wood floor beneath my feet looked to be at least fifty years old, and lures, impeccably positioned, dangled from racks, and fishing rods leaned in a jumble against a worn counter and there was an enormous old-fashioned barber chair that Winston insisted I try out. When I sat, it absorbed me like a mother's lap and Winston smiled.
We talked and talked and talked. My mother would have been proud of me. When I asked Winston about the meeting coming up that evening, he stopped smiling.
"I'm sixty-six years old," he said. "We've had this place since 1954. You wouldn't believe it; we've had people beggin' for this place. I don't want anybody to take my place. Money don't mean much to me. Three guys came in here asking if I'm selling. I told them it's not for sale and they just smiled and said, 'Everything's for sale,' and I said, 'No sir, you got that wrong.'"
Winston stood tall and upright, but when I finally turned to leave he suddenly sagged and looked befuddled.
"Folks have offered me a million dollars," he said. "What would you do?"
I couldn't answer him. I don't have an answer for these kinds of question. But the next morning I saw in the paper where the resident of Murrells Inlet had said no to Walmart.
That was ten years ago. I doubt Winston Perry is still around: Winston, bless his amiable soul, looked fragile when I met him. Just now I took a deep breath and googled "Walmart, Murrells Inlet". There is one. The good news is it doesn't look like it's close to the water.
In the grocery store I frequent (I'm not going to identify it; the owners are proud people and would be embarrassed) you will find all of the basic necessities, arranged as neatly as the lures that hung from Winston Perry's racks. I don't know how many square feet my favorite grocery store is. I'm not good with square footage. I'd say the store, with a little reconfiguring, is about the size of two Walmart aisles.
I know Big Boxes bring jobs. The new Simi Valley Walmart hired mostly local residents as well as some former clients of a local homeless shelter. A local woman, hired by the Simi Walmart, called her new job a "godsend." According to news reports, Walmart also gave $8,000 in grants to local Simi Valley organizations.
I don't hold much hope for our local grocery.
I'm not saying it's good or bad. I'm just saying that eventually something irretrievable will be gone.
Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
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