Saturday, November 26, 2005

NYTimes columnist reporting casts doubt on Wal-Mart film subject H&H Hardware


http://select.nytimes.com/2005/11/26/opinion/26tierney.html
Published: November 26, 2005

Op-Ed Columnist
Big Store, Little Town

By JOHN TIERNEY
The New York Times

MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio -- If you've seen the anti-Wal-Mart documentary
playing at churches and colleges and union halls, you have learned
about the people here in Amish farm country who couldn't stop Wal-Mart
from ruining their simple way of life.

The film, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," focuses on H & H Hardware,
a family-owned business in this small town in northeastern Ohio. Its
anguished owner explains that he needs a loan to survive, but complains that
the bank has refused him because Wal-Mart's pending arrival has depressed
the value of his property.

He shows a rack of booklets being distributed by an Amish customer: "How
Wal-Mart Is Destroying America." But there is no stopping the giant. The
film shows a headline, "Wal-Mart Descends On Middlefield!," followed by
bulldozers in action.

Accompanied by the mournful twangs of a guitar, H & H slowly goes out of
business. An Amish horse and buggy is shown passing the moribund store,
followed by images of empty shelves and the lights being turned off.

It's a sad story. But it's not exactly the one you hear if you talk to the
Amish customers now shopping at Middlefield Hardware, the new store in the
same building where H & H operated. They will tell you the new store is a
big improvement over the old one.

The store was opened last month by Jay Negin, a local resident who bought
the building despite the new Wal-Mart. He told me that the building's
appraised value, rather than being hurt by Wal-Mart's opening in May, is
higher now than it was last year.

He scoffed at the notion that Wal-Mart put his predecessor out of business,
as did some former employees and customers of the old store. They told me
that the business had been floundering for years because of management
mistakes. It actually closed three months before Wal-Mart opened, a fact not
made clear in the documentary.

The former owner, Jon Hunter, while insisting to me that Wal-Mart had hurt
his prospects, also said that he had been losing customers well before
Wal-Mart because he had made bad decisions and couldn't afford to keep his
shelves stocked.

The new hardware store is doing fine, Negin told me. "Am I concerned about
Wal-Mart?" he asked. "Not really. If you're a struggling business, they can
hurt you. But as long as you listen to your customers and give them the
products and service they need, they'll stay loyal."

He's hardly the only optimist in Middlefield. John Bruening, an optician who
appeared in the documentary fretting about Wal-Mart, got so much unexpected
business that he has decided to open a new store.

When I mentioned these inconvenient facts to the filmmaker, Robert
Greenwald, he acknowledged he might not have chosen the best examples of
Wal-Mart's victims. He urged me to look at the "macro" issues - at the
overall revenue lost by local merchants and the other social costs of
Wal-Mart.

I'll grant him that some businesses do suffer because of Wal-Mart. And yes,
there are larger issues, like Wal-Mart's wages and benefits, that are worth
considering in another column. But as long as we're in the town that
Greenwald chose as a symbol of Wal-Mart's oppression, let's consider some of
the macro effects here.

There still may be Amish activists passing out booklets against Wal-Mart,
but they seemed to be vastly outnumbered by the Amish who tie their horses
to the posts outside the new Wal-Mart.

"I wasn't too happy about Wal-Mart coming," said Ada Schlabach, who was
browsing through the plain-colored fabrics that Wal-Mart stocks for Amish
customers. "I didn't know what it would do to the community - would it make
it more citylike? But I was surprised. It's kind of nice now. I like
shopping here."

Ben Yoder, an Amish carpenter who is 24, was there with two of his four
children. "We get all our diapers and wipes here because it's cheaper than
anywhere else," he said. He and most of the Amish shoppers said the Wal-Mart
was especially welcomed because they could reach it by horse, unlike the one
more than 20 miles away.

"Wal-Mart isn't really a big issue with our people," said Eli Miller, who
runs a sawmill. "At first some were upset because they were scared by
something new. But now they like being able to get everything here - your
name brand, your off brand, all in one place. I think of it as simple
shopping."
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