Dollar General stores, which sell items as diverse as food and clothing and household cleaners and tools at rock bottom prices are moving like a juggernaut into rural American and into devastated inner cities. Dollar General, says its CEO, goes where even Walmart doesn’t.
The problem is that Dollar General wipes out what local businesses might remain in these economically challenged communities. And, they offer a different kind of product, one that has a long shelf life and can be bought in bulk. Heirloom tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, meat from locally grown animals … things like that don’t make the cut.
“Not everything is to be had for a dollar, but rarely is anything priced above $10. But there is a cost. Dollar General’s aggressive pricing drives locally owned grocery stores out of business, replacing shelves stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat with the kinds of processed foods underpinning the country’s obesity and diabetes crisis.”
Occasionally a town, like Buhler, Kansas, turns down the subsidies required to bring a Dollar General store to town, and the local grocery gets a reprieve. But Dollar General is steamrolling ahead, constantly finding welcoming communities.
I think of Bloomfield, Iowa, where my father went to high school. He actually lived in Mark, which is a tiny crossroads so small he had to rent a room in town for high school because the walk from the farm would have taken too long. Bloomfield is the county seat for Davis County. In the early years when we went to visit family in Iowa, “Saturday night” was a big deal. All the farmers came into town to buy supplies for the week. The men stood chatting and smoking on street corners while their wives went in and out of local merchants, stocking up. We kids played on the grass in the town square and ate ice cream. Years later, my Aunt Colleen mourned that “Saturday night no longer happens.” Most people were shopping at big box stores outside of town, and the local merchants failed. People stayed home to watch TV.
The last time I was in Bloomfield, some years ago, most of the store fronts were open. But it was arts and crafts shops, small galleries… things that would appeal to tourists. The Royal Cafe where my father worked his way through high school was long gone. So was Colleen and Louis’ “Graves the Great Barber Shop and Beauty Salon”, where Louis and Colleen Graves made their modest living. There were two chairs in the shop, one for men’s haircuts and one where Colleen gave tight perms using acrid chemicals that made my eyes water just being in the shop.
I’m sure there were once stores selling groceries, too, but no longer.
Walmart and Dollar General are a devil’s bargain for these rural communities, but we all know the old days when farmers gathered for Saturday night and bought from local merchants aren’t coming back.