The big gossip in spring was all about the new box store development just outside of town. People couldn’t seem to help but gush at the idea of all the new franchise stores that might be opening. It was obvious which retailers would likely set-up shop in Humbug just by looking at any other major box store development in any other prairie town but Humbuggers dreamed of the most ridiculous array of high end retailers imaginable. Usually they were very offended when I openly laughed at the idea of an IKEA store opening up in Humbug.
I had extremely mixed feelings about the big box stores coming to town. On the one hand it would mean more people moving into Humbug, which definitely meant more customers for my store. On the other hand, the box store development was sure to spell doom for the beautiful downtown that I had so instantly fallen in love with. Few Humbuggers recognized the danger posed to their downtown Main Street by the new development though.
I had trouble understanding how a people who were so averse to change could be so excited about all the new stores. Then it occurred to me that all the big franchises had a strong presence on TV. Certainly if something was said to be desirable on television then it had to be good – as far as the Humbug mind would ever understand. That is likely why they wanted bottled dressings and fast food burgers so badly.
I hoped that the new competition might inspire the downtown business owners to become more aggressive in marketing their little utopian shopping district but I was way off base. The few that I spoke with actually felt that the big box stores would just make people realize the value of the personal service they got when shopping downtown. They were more opposed than ever to the idea of putting up signs to direct traffic to Main Street. Some of them were actually so deluded as to think that the loyalty of their customers would result in the failure of several of the big stores.
Not a single Humbugger seemed to realize that the arrival of the big stores would mean the departure of their old ways of doing business. I tried, to no avail, to tell them that the big stores would never allow them to write cheques for payment at the cash register. They all responded, “This is Humbug and if they want to do business with good German people then they’ll take our cheques – you just watch.” I watched.
It went far beyond the little details of business transactions though. They felt that the ‘upper class’ of Humbug would land all of the management jobs in the new stores. In this way, they felt that all of the big franchise stores could be tailored to suit local business practices. The mayor even had the audacity to send letters to the company headquarters of each confirmed new store to provide them with a list of the hierarchy of local workers. They really and truly believed that major retail franchises would care about what Humbuggers thought of the Bauers as opposed to the Huebers. I tried to imagine the President of Human Resources of Walmart reading a letter from the Mayor of Humbug. What the hell was that guy thinking?
The first controversy to hit the rounds of gossip was the news that all of the stores planned to be open on Sundays. It was completely inconceivable to all Humbuggers that any retailer would have the nerve to open up on their day of worship. City Hall scrambled to enact bylaws against Sunday shopping but they were very quickly served with legal papers that put a stop to their efforts at threat of a hefty law suit. The next plan was to have the priest tell everyone that they should forbid their families from working in the stores on Sundays. This plan collapsed in on itself when they found out that it meant only non-Catholics would get hired. The real problem they faced was figuring out how they were going to keep people from shopping at these stores on Sundays. Just for fun, I spread the rumour that any such boycotts would encounter the same sort of legal implications faced by City Hall in passing bylaws against Sunday shopping.
For the first time, Humbuggers were struggling to deal with the fact that not everything in the world conformed to the social structures of their ten mile radius. As much as this upset some of them, others just held to their belief that they would make the big stores do business the old fashioned Humbug way. On the one hand I felt a bit of satisfaction seeing them face an unstoppable force of progress, but on the other I really felt an impending grief for the culture they were about to lose.
I realized that I really didn’t despise Humbuggers so much as I despised their stubbornness. If only they had been a bit more open to change then they might have had the opportunity to direct it a bit more within their own town. Certainly they could choose to simply boycott the new stores, but they had already been driving into Cuspidor for years to shop at these same retailers. There was no way for any boycott to succeed and the change was inevitable.
It hadn’t dawned on them at all the new stores would have equitable hiring practices. This meant that racial minorities and gays would have equal opportunity for jobs. It also meant that people from the ‘wrong side of town’ would be equal in the workplace with someone as auspicious one of the Hueberts – whose great-grandparents had established the town choir. They just didn’t understand that a big chain store wouldn’t have the slightest inhibition about hiring an unwed pregnant woman.
The worst of all was the implication for local cash flow. There was no way for any of the small Main Street businesses to compete with the prices of these big retailers, which meant almost all money in town would flow out of town. These big retailers had higher margins than local businesses could ever dream of, and every penny of that profit would flow to corporate headquarters to bolster the value held by the shareholders. The shareholders not only couldn’t care less about the effect on the town but would be completely oblivious to the existence of Humbug altogether.
The average shareholder was unlikely to be German, Catholic, or the least bit interested in small town values. Many of them would be gay and some of them would likely even be pedophiles. None of them would be paying property taxes to the town of Humbug and not one penny of their earnings would be dropped in the collection plate at the local churches. Nonetheless, Humbuggers giggled feverishly over the prospect of having these new big box stores in town.
From the moment that I heard the rumours, every time I walked down Main Street I looked at businesses that I knew could not possibly survive another five years. I felt like a doctor who had the test results for every patient in a ward. It was eerie to look upon the faces before you knowing which ones were already diagnosed terminal. It was even more eerie seeing the smiling shopkeepers staring back, completely oblivious to their fates. I remembered all the Christmas lights and how I actually heard Christmas carols in my head. I wondered how many more years this little downtown would look so festive. Once vacant storefronts began to appear, the holes in the décor would be like scars from cancers that had been removed. The thought of it sickened me.