Wake Up Bloomingdale's

In the November Washington Monthly, Christina Larson reviews Jan Whitaker's history of American department stores -- retailers who were destroying community, homogenizing the planet, and putting mom and pop on the street before Sam Walton was born:

Established venders feared being driven out of business, and indeed many Main Street tea merchants, booksellers, crockery stores, and glassware dealers did lose patrons and close shop. Other early critiques were less about cents than sensibility. In 1897, Scribner's lamented the big stores' tawdry sales events; banal and homogenous goods; and appeals to customers as crowds, rather than as selective individuals. Mark Twain found maddening the stores' practice of heaping goods of no practical relation on adjacent tables for customers to simply rummage through. Of particular offense was the sight of an autobiography of President Ulysses S. Grant strewn alongside the rugs and teapots at John Wanamaker's store in Philadelphia. Clemens, who had co-published the book, blasted Wanamaker as "that unco-pious butter-mouthed Sunday school-slobbering sneak-thief."

Bad publicity aside, as Whitaker points out, "outweighing all the department store negatives was one huge positive fact: millions of people shopped in them."

I'm no Wal-Mart enthusiast, and something is clearly lost as we move from the pre-Bloomie's era to city-centered department stores to suburban Sam's Clubs. But given that small retailers have long been defined in opposition to their "banal and homogenous" counterparts -- just as the hipster coffee shop downtown is as emphatically not Starbucks as it is anything else -- it seems obvious that big boxes create opportunity for creative competition even as they trounce those who fail to innovate.

Julian Sanchez spotted a community of Wal-Mart haters back in December.

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    It is Wal-Marts Abuse of Eminent Domain and Corporate Welfare that gets under my skin.

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    Man, Mark Twain had a real potty mouth!

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    Clemens, who had co-published the book, blasted Wanamaker as "that unco-pious butter-mouthed Sunday school-slobbering sneak-thief."

    I too know that John Wanamaker was a no-good dastard.

    Family lore has it that Wanamaker didn't warn my great-great-grandfather of an impending bank failure. Since great-great-grandpa was left out of the Philadelphia insider loop he was wiped out in the Panic of '93.

    Now my brothers and cousins and I have to look at our family's former ancestral homes from the sidewalk along with the rest of the Philadelphia riff-raff.

  • Paul||

    It is Wal-Marts Abuse of Eminent Domain and Corporate Welfare that gets under my skin.

    Wal-Mart can't abuse eminent domain, only a body with legislative and police power can abuse eminent domain. Wal-Mart can only request that the body in question (I'll let you figure out what that body is) use E.D. as a tool to the ends. If the body in question told Wal-Mart to bugger off, then Wal-Mart would have to pay fair market value in transactions that it was able to complete between willing partners.

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    Issac, at least you got a street named after Bartram. My millionaire great grandfather lost his woolen mill in Phila. in the Panic of '93
    (not to mention that he refused to sell cloth to ready to wear men's suit makers because he believed Wanamaker's "off the rack" suits were
    nothing that any gentlemen would be caught dead in. Where do I line up for reparations?

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    I hold Bloomie's responsible for all the goddam Burberry plaid that's about to bloom. It's like a fungus.

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    Creech

    Indeed, won't someone shed a tear for the impoverished descendents of spectacular failures?

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    If the body in question told Wal-Mart to bugger off, then Wal-Mart would have to pay fair market value in transactions that it was able to complete between willing partners.

    It's still not a credit to any person or organization to take advantage of aforementioned body's willingness to engage in eminent domain abuse.

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    I think Eric1/2B has it about right.

    Walmart has far more resources and expertise than the local politicians making these decisions.

    The politicos might think they are doing the best thing for their community, and be convinced to engage in ED abuse for the good of the community. They may be convinced of that benefit due to savy lobbying by Walmart (who have sharpened their message and techniques on previous communites).

    Walmart is, of course, blameless in this process. They bear no responsibility for their actions. Their motives are pure as the driven snow.

    Isn't an underlying principal of why smaller government might be preferred is that it limits the ability of non-government players to leverage that power to their own ends?

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    I agree with the last two commentors. My father was in the distant past on the city council of the small town where I grew up. Walmart asked for and received an indefinite property tax abatement for a superstore. Dad voted against it on the premise that the government doesn't play favorites, and that there was no guarantee that Walmart would make up for the revenues lost from the abatement. Walmart replied to his concerns by saying if they didn't get the abatement, they'd just move out of town.

    Now, twenty years later, Walmart is the only business in the town, the property tax base is shot, and the tax abatement has been renewed because Walmart inevitably threatens to move if they have to pay something.

    It's important to note that Walmart's original strategy was to go to small towns and farther-out suburbs, where the city governments had a lot less experience than the bigger cities. Once they had those places under control, they moved into the cities themselves.

    Do you think I could find a Battlestar Gallactica analogy here?

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