The near-unanimous opposition among Boston mayoral candidates to letting a Walmart open in the city frustrates the Globe's Shirley Leung:
Walmart looked at opening a grocery store near Dudley Square a couple of years ago, but Menino feared its rock-bottom prices would drive the little guys out of business. Walmart had also scouted out sites in Downtown Crossing and Dorchester.
The argument against Walmart assumes that City Hall should dictate where residents shop. This isn’t Soviet Russia.
Leung addresses two of the biggest complaints against the megastore chain. One is that Walmart drives down wages, something that could be specifically addressed through local or state law (“You can require a higher wage for big box retail,” as Leung quotes one economist.) Another is that Walmart kills smaller, locally owned businesses. Leung writes that this fear is both oversold ("while some independents close, others come along to fill the void") and misplaced ("let the market play itself out").
Classism also plays a role in the Walmart debate. Poorer neighborhoods in Boston are already retail wastelands, and I don't feel comfortable telling residents they must pay ridiculous prices or take a bus to the suburbs to get necessities like brooms, light bulbs, irons, and laundry baskets. You don't have a functioning neighborhood without well-stocked hardware and home furnishing stores. (The omnivorous Woolworth chain used to provide the service of driving inadequately stocked stores out of business.) If Walmart is the only solution on the table, it's paternalistic for residents of wealthier neighborhoods to organize against it.
As for the deline of small shops, I live in a small-city downtown (Malden) that's seven miles from the nearest Walmart. Local businesses have been steadily closing down for decades. This year my block has gained two vacant storefronts, the former sites of a portrait studio and a tailor. Blame digital photography and clothes that are cheaper to replace than to mend. Businesses like these would be disappearing regardless of the strength of big-box chains.
There's also an element of hypocrisy in fighting a chain you would never patronize anyway (I think Walmart is tacky, but I don't have to feed a family) while continuing to get the benefits of more respectable chains. The better neighborhoods of Boston are crammed with CVS outlets that have killed independent drugstores. Is there an organized effort to avoid CVS and patronize Gary Drug in Beacon Hill or Colonial Drug in Harvard Square? I know, they're out of the way, and as long as you've got a CVS loyalty card...
Crate & Barrel is another great example of the double standard. It's upscale compared with Walmart, but if you live in Boston and don't have a car, it's a good place to get cereal bowls and wine glasses that don't look like they came from the dollar store. Go to the Back Bay location in December, and you'll see a long line of people getting kitchen gadgets as inexpensive gifts. And a few blocks away, in the South End, you can find independent boutiques where strollers examine teapots and clocks and leave without buying anything. Crate & Barrel must have killed dozens of them over the years. (So long, Aunt Sadie's and Tommy Tish.)
But though there's demand for a handful of tasteful freelance shops in Boston (what's your favorite purchase from the new Louis location?), independent retailers in a big city tend to be noisier and grittier.
Successful independent retailers often have qualities that arouse NIMBYism. They may stay open late or have ugly exteriors or sell things that make the big chains squeamish (like hookahs and magazines whose covers offend the mayor). Some combine uses to make a profit — for example, selling books and brunch. (Look at this place in decadent DC, which sells books and beer, offers live entertainment, and stays open until 1 a.m. Not that anyone would want to open such a place in Boston, which has no area as lively as Dupont Circle.)
Few of them serve as old-time general stores. More likely, they depend on niche markets, like the Indian and Middle Eastern grocers in my neighborhood that hold fast against Super Stop & Shop, or the comic-book store that is still hanging on decades after every other book seller closed. They're the kind of place that good-government types feel nostalgic for after they're gone (bye, Jack's Joke Shop) but regard as eyesores when they're making money. They generally don't have a positive impact on property values.
Keeping Walmart out of Boston doesn't do anything to help entrepreneurs open small shops. The city could probably do more to help independent businesses through zoning and licensing laws, streamlining regulations, and even taking the side of some merchants against the few but vocal residents who oppose any new shop that isn't a Trader Joe's. The city's Main Streets program and business improvement districts are other potential tools in bringing more independent retailers to Boston. Finding out how mayoral candidates propose to bring in businesses would be a lot more helpful than hearing them pander to the residents of better neighborhoods who sniff at the thought of Dorchester getting a Walmart.
First image from the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, available at Amazon.com.