WINESBURG, OH–In a move retail-industry insiders are calling "thematically fitting," Wal-Mart opened its newest store Monday in Winesburg, a town of 25,000 in northern Ohio.
"We chose Winesburg due to its convenient location, relative lack of competing retail superstores, and the darkly powerful inner lives of its residents," said Thomas Coughlin, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Division, which oversees more than 2,500 locations nationwide.
Since the turn of the century, the citizens of Winesburg have developed a national reputation for spiritual and emotional frustration and dashed ambitions. Wal-Mart's decision to open a store in Winesburg underscored those feelings.
"Target scouted the Winesburg area last year but decided against locating there," Wall Street Journal retail analyst Julia Faber said. "Their control-group data showed that the town's residents were filled with a rarely articulated yet palpable anguish that meshed poorly with the exuberant image of the Target Corporation. The bankrupt Montgomery Ward, which closed its Winesburg location late last year, seemed more in tune with Winesburg residents' somber, conflicted psychological state. Wal-Mart, with its proven track record of leaving economic devastation in its wake, should be a good fit."
Winesburg residents responded positively to Wal-Mart's October 2000 announcement that it would open a store there the following spring: More than 3,000 people applied for some 150 new jobs. Among the first to be hired was 19-year-old George Willard IV. A restless yet circumspect boy with a keen curiosity about the world, Willard manages the housewares department.
"If you can bring us a lower price from another store, Wal-Mart will match it," Willard told a customer. "We won't be undersold. Yet something tells me there has to be something out there beyond Winesburg. Something besides all this decay and loneliness and broken dreams."
Doc Reefy, 72, works at the new Wal-Mart as a greeter and stockperson. A physician for nearly 50 years, Reefy grew bored with the quiet routine of retirement and now uses his large, gnarled hands–which resemble clusters of unpainted wooden balls fastened together by steel rods–for rolling back prices.
"Doc Reefy is a quiet sort," Willard said. "We aren't the kind of folks who involve themselves in each other's business, but legend has it that he was once married to a tall, dark girl who'd had many suitors. They had an understanding. They were married less than a year before she took sick and died."
Willard's mother, Elizabeth Willard, works as a cashier. A silent, frail woman whose ashen complexion gives no indication of the vivaciousness and idealism of her youth, she only exhibits fire when her son's happiness is threatened.
"George's father come to the breakroom on the second day of business," Elizabeth said. "I heard him tell George he wasn't aggressively promoting himself within the company enough, that Ezra Hardy's son Victor would practically snatch the associate-manager position from him before George could have a chance at it. He accused him of wool-gathering, of errant thoughts. 'What ails you?' he asked him."
Continued Elizabeth: "I could not bear to see George's youthful dreams wither and die as mine had so long ago. I have always hated my ambitious, swaggering husband, who thinks himself one of the chief men of town despite his many failures, but it was always an impersonal hatred, because he was only a small part of a far larger problem. But now he was this thing personified. So incensed was I that I grabbed a cheap Swiss Army knife from the impulse-purchase rack flanking my register, and with great determination strode to the breakroom, intending to stab my husband. When I killed him, something would snap inside myself and I would die, too. It would have been a great release for all of us."
Before Elizabeth could commit the act, however, a voice over the store's P.A. system called her to the front registers, where a long line of customers had formed. Her anger subsiding as fast as it had risen, Willard returned to the front of the store with only a little broken sob in her throat betraying her emotion.
Other Wal-Mart employees have even more enigmatic pasts. Wing Biddlebaum has quick hands, making him an ace cashier and stockperson, yet it was those same hands that may have led to a violent and tragic misunderstanding many years ago between himself and the father of a boy Biddlebaum instructed as a schoolteacher. Misses-department supervisor Alice Hindman still waits in vain for a long-gone suitor. Only recently has she realized that some people are destined to live and die alone in Winesburg.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the new Wal-Mart's manager, the foul-tempered, malodorous Wash Williams III, who nevertheless commands a perverse respect.
"This Sam's Choice Cranberry Apple Juice was spoiled before it was shipped here. It was a foul thing come out of a factory more foul," Williams told a complaining customer before refunding her money.
Mitch Ennis, Wal-Mart's director of north-central Ohio operations, is confident that the Winesburg Wal-Mart will fast become one of the top-performing retail stores in his region.
"Wal-Mart wants small communities like Winesburg to thrive, and what better way than to give jobs and livelihoods to its deserving townsfolk?" Ennis said. "Some naysayers claim that Winesburg is but a procession of grotesques–grotesques who so ardently embrace certain truths that these same truths sour into falsehoods. But we at Wal-Mart cherish the American Dream, and nowhere does it manifest itself so deeply as in small-town America."
If the Winesburg store proves successful, Wal-Mart next plans to open stores in Spoon River, IL, and Gopher Prairie, MN.