Driving north on Division Street this month, my bougie middle-class sensibilities were offended.
A building that once housed a local mainstay for technical outdoor gear is now a Dollar Tree. Mountain Gear, Spokane’s hometown gear shop closed in 2019, was driven out of business, according to founder and owner Paul Fish, by the merciless onslaught of online shopping (OK, basically Amazon singlehandedly crushed them in its push to dominate all aspects of our lives).
What a fitting denouement – I thought huffily to myself – a store known for excellence and attention to detail, a store that employed knowledgeable staff and outfitted a generation of outdoor adventures – is now a clearinghouse for cheap goods.
Quality sacrificed for quantity. The continued erosion of local and small-town businesses, yada, yada, yada.
That generalized resentment simmered for a few days and then I heard something – that on its surface – confirmed all my righteous indignation.
There are now more dollar stores in the United States than ALL Walmarts, Starbucks and McDonalds combined.
Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which owns Family Dollar) are the biggest players with more than 32,000 locations, according to reporting from the Washington Post in August.
This year, 1,650 dollar stores were expected to open. In the Spokane area, there are 11 dollar stores and four on Division alone. There are four in the Coeur d’Alene area. Two in Oldtown, Idaho.
This shocked and disturbed me, but not for the right reasons.
People are buying food at dollar stores because they can’t afford to shop elsewhere as inflation rises and folks – mostly low income – are laid off or underemployed. This meteoric growth of dollar stores has been fueled by desperation, stagnant or declining wages, and a global pandemic that’s made the rich richer, while continuing to suck dry the corpse of middle- and lower-class aspirations.
That’s left wide swaths of the country dependent on a chain of stores that rarely sells fresh food, instead hawking cheap, heavily processed and packaged wares. Dollar General, for example, sells fresh groceries in only 7% of its stores, according to the Washington Post.
This is disturbing.
And yet, it’s been mostly ignored as the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the discourse, which makes sense. It’s a global pandemic, after all.
And yet, a deeper travesty is unfolding. We are headed to a world where people in the richest country in the history of the world can’t afford to eat fresh food, thus increasing obesity, heart disease and a host of other preventable long-term illnesses (all diseases, incidentally that increase the likelihood that COVID-19 is going to be a serious problem for you), while the wealthy minority shop at Jeff Bezos-owned, glitzy techwonder temples dedicated to self-righteous affluence.
That’s a terrifying vision that seems closer each day. One that you – regardless of political affiliation or economic position – should be terrified of.
Why? Aside from ethics and morality?
Because even if you’re one of the bougie, middle -class folks like myself who can afford to shop at Whole Foods and would never dream of buying food at a dollar store (I didn’t know they sold food until writing this), you probably enjoy businesses like Mountain Gear – places that care about quality and know the community.
For outdoor enthusiasts, in particular, those kinds of businesses are invaluable. While buying a hat, you’re able to chat about conditions on the mountain, get advice on sizing your boots, or meet a new climbing partner.
In a world dominated by extremes, in a world enslaved to efficiency and consolidation, those kinds of places can’t – and won’t – exist.
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