Chain stores discount a town’s true worth

 

Glasgow, Mont., is a far cry and a long drive from the mountainous western portion of a state that draws its name from the Spanish word montana. I know that because I recently drove to Glasgow, a town of 3,253 that rests in a flat region of northeastern Montana and serves as the county seat of the aptly named Valley County.

My wife and I visited Glasgow shortly after our 23-year-old daughter moved there to spend a year working as an Americorps volunteer at the Women’s Resource Center. Since no interstates go north there, we drove on two-lane highways for all but 55 miles of the 440-mile trip from our home in Rapid City, S.D. For the last 400 miles of the journey, no vehicle showed up in the rearview mirror — not even one — even on the 25 miles of interstate in Montana.

Our daughter had called us a couple of days after arriving in town to prepare us for where she’d landed. "They have a McDonald’s, a Dairy Queen and an Albertsons grocery store," she explained, "but no Wal-Mart. It’s 200 miles to the nearest K-Mart. But they do have a Pamida."

That’s how many of us who live in rural areas characterize a town and maybe even judge its worth. We tote up the chains that have located there. I now think this tells us next to nothing, because it merely tells how a place is just like any other place scattered around the country. It doesn’t tell us what makes a town unique or odd or beautiful.

Before we visited Glasgow, my folks called from their home in suburban Chicago, where I grew up. (My hometown happens to be home of the first McDonald’s drive-in.) They asked for news of their granddaughter’s move and new location.

I tried not to say it, but I ended up repeating, "They even have a McDonald’s." Then I went on to list the other chains that were there. I felt terrible, but I really didn’t know what else to say. The statements served as a kind of cultural shorthand.

Even in the rural reaches of our country, the world of advertising and the corporations have so saturated our minds with their products and logos that we find it difficult to define our existence apart from them. It takes effort to see a place and the people who have settled there for who they are in their own frame of reference. But to do otherwise is to show a form of bias that writer Wendell Berry calls a "prejudice against country people."

Now that I’ve visited Glasgow myself, I’ve discovered several ways to describe where my daughter lives. I talk about the town’s remoteness and its broad valley, and I sometimes say that St. Matthew’s, the Episcopal Church which my daughter attends, is full of "Markles." That’s the name of a family that’s been in the area for generations and which owns, among other things, a furniture store called Markles. It is celebrating its 100th year of business.

I make sure they know that the priest at St. Matthew’s is also an orthopedic surgeon at the local hospital. He decided he wanted to go into the ministry and now does both jobs — not an unusual phenomenon in small towns.

They might also want to know that the chief of police called the Women’s Resource Center where my daughter works to say someone had reported a vehicle with South Dakota plates regularly parked there, and to inform that owner that state law requires new residents to get Montana plates within 30 days of moving to the state. And I pass on the tip my daughter received from a member of St. Matthew’s to check out the huge portions of the walleye special served on Fridays at Sam’s Supper Club.

As corporate America spreads like creeping jenny to choke out the character of rural America, it is up to us to remain alert to what lies beneath the chain-store veneer of the places we live. We need to resist the siren’s call, amplified by advertising and designed to lure us to the chains that promise us rock-bottom prices, in place of personal concern and lasting relationships. We can seek out and support the things that make a place distinctively local. I did, and I can tell you, the walleye was phenomenal.

Ken Steinken is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He teaches journalism and English at Stevens High School in Rapid City, South Dakota.