I recently went into a K-Mart in the town of my birth. Normally, I try to steer clear of shopping at large discount retail stores, and this visit confirmed all of my reasons for avoiding such places. There’s no way to say this without sounding elitist or arrogant, so let’s just spell it out: Discount retailers combine some of the worst aspects of humanity with some of the most worthless detritus that the capitalist system has to offer, creating a uniquely depressing and soul-crushing experience.
When I was in business school, we were often given case studies on the decline of K-Mart (and Ames, Roses, etc. etc.) relative to Wal-Mart. We would earnestly try to figure out ways for K-Mart to remarket itself, refocus its product line strategies, and various other ideas that all amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic or reediting the director‘s cut of The Brown Bunny. What’s really necessary to remake K-Mart into a place that wouldn’t inspire so much shame and self-loathing is an exorcism. There’s just something about a K-Mart that inspires ennui, boredom and the sadness that comes from crushed dreams and unmet expectations - the distinctive mix of off-brand merchandise, surly, woefully inept employees, and the sadly dazed clientele, earnestly slogging through the muck hoping to find something worthwhile. And this particular K-Mart is even worse - the only store left in a dead strip mall in the unfashionable side of town. (Which would presuppose that there was a fashionable side of Salisbury, so let’s just say “even more unfashionable.” But I digress.) This scene is like the film negative version of all of those yupscale IKEAs and Targets and Nordstroms that dot the well-to-do suburbs in major metropolitan areas.
At least shopping at Wal-Mart, while not socially acceptable in some circles, doesn’t quite create the same effect. Shopping at K-Mart is a lot like wearing sweatpants in public or abstaining from showering and shaving on a regular basis - an admission that you can’t quite cut it in civilized and polite society, that this is as good as it’s going to get and you’ve decided to accept your low station in life. Whatever you may think about Wal-Mart (I personally loathe them for destroying whatever was left of smalltown America and helping in the continuing drive to turn us all into wage-shift serfs), at least they’re clean, feature merchandise that you wouldn’t be ashamed to purchase and use, and employ people who at least pretend that their souls haven’t been crushed by the weight of the world.
Next week on the Vitamin B Glandular Show: “Dollar Stores: Dear God in Heaven, Why?”