I haven’t been traveling much the past few years. Then, largely as a consequence of getting laid off with enough severance that I didn’t immediately have to renew my taxi driver’s license to make ends meet, I’ve traveled a lot in the past three and a half months. My two trips back to the Midwest in that time, with their major on-the-road components, have made me aware of two otherwise invisible retail powerhouses growing up in (mostly) rural America.
Everyone thinks of Wal-Mart as the Great Destroyer of the old small-town business district. But what I’ve been seeing the last few months is a chain that seems to be sprouting up in those small downtowns — from Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, to Cairo, Illinois, and beyond. It’s the Dollar General store. I’ve only been in one. Eamon and I went into the one in Cottonwood Falls — seat of Chase County, made famous by William Least-Heat Moon’s “Prairyerth” — to buy something trivial; can’t remember what now. But the impression I got was it was the cheapest stuff off the cheapest freight container from the cheapest mass-produced-goods factory in the most horribly industrially anonymous part of China. Probably I have that all wrong — I should go back with notebook and camera and take another look. But it is attention-getting that they are everywhere. Everywhere.
Along with another chain: Buck’s General Store. Sounds homey, doesn’t it. Like maybe you read about Buck in “The Yearling” and he’s out whittling in his rocker on the front porch of the store. That was the old 19th century Buck. Now we’re talking about the 21st century Buck, who sells gasoline and cold drinks and sundries and every form and flavor of snack cake yet invented. In fact, Buck’s General Store is just 7-Eleven with a different layout and color scheme. But like 7-Eleven and Dollar General, it’s everywhere, too. (So is Dairy Queen, by the way; except when you really want a chocolate malt, when you can easily drive 1,000 miles without seeing one). I’m just wondering where they all came from. I know 15 minutes or so on the web will give me some sort of clue; and if the answer is interesting, I might even write more about it.
(But before we leave the subject of by-the-highway retail altogether, another chain that has come to my attention, and actually gotten my money on two occasions, including today, is Cracker Barrel. It’s a store. It’s a restaurant. It’s a pile of knicknacks so weighty it would sink an aircraft carrier. On our June trip, Eamon had his eye out for one, since he remembered them fondly from his 1997 cross-country drive with him mom, Noela. We saw one in Columbia, Missouri, as we headed west on I-70. It was above-average for road food. I found passable postcards to send to Dad. Nothing happened that would stop me from visiting again.
(Today, we stopped at one just south of Springfield, Illinois. The way the store/restaurant is set up, you enter through tchotchke central after walking a gauntlet of oversized wooden rockers lined up unbucolically on a faux country-store porch outside. In fact, we saw one person in one of the 25 or so rockers, staring into the glare of the declining afternoon sun and the roar of interstate traffic, when we entered the place; and a different patron on solitary rocker duty in the very same chair on the way out. So we walked into the souvenir zone and, just like in Columbia, we were immediately greeted by an older woman shop employee inquiring into our welfare. When I told her I was fine and asked how she was doing, she answered with some sort of over-the-top superlative — I’m just doing fantastic, or something like that — that half made me expect I’d hear a Unification Church pitch next. Dad put his finger on it. “That was a little too much like Wal-Mart — just a little too friendly.”)