The story’s a familiar one, isn’t it, a shopkeeper is paid a visit by a group of thugs who suggest that they are there to provide protection for the store owner…for a small monthly fee. It’s a polite way of saying that if you don’t pay them a hefty percentage of your profits they’re going to destroy your business and you will be without a livelihood. A crime organization puts the squeeze on all the businesses in town and soon the innocent little town of free people becomes a place of fear and intimidation. The criminal organization is like some blood-sucking leech that gets fat while the healthy and hardworking hosts are sucked dry until they are barely living.
I thought of this the other day while sitting in the car at a strip mall while waiting for my wife. Around me was a group of stores, the same stores you’re likely to see at a strip mall near you. There was a tax preparation business, a hair stylist, a nutrition store, a sandwich shop, and a nail spa. And every single one of them was a chain store. Every single one of them was identical to the one in the strip mall closest to you.
It didn’t used to be that way. I’m old enough to remember independent businesses in my home town, which by the way was the epitome of suburbia, not Mayberry. We had a pharmacy, a hair salon, a tax preparer, a book store, a record store, garden shop, an optician, an electronics dealer and a grocery. Today we call that Walmart.
The thing is, every one of those independent business men are now working for Walmart at whatever price Walmart decides to pay them. And if it’s not Walmart, it’s some other chain. All those small business owners used to play a special role in the town, used to know that they contributed to their community in a meaningful way. Now they are interchangeable cogs in the corporate machine. Where once they met their neighbors and chatted while doing their job, now they seem like lifeless drones as the plod through their working day. Visit a Walmart pharmacy sometime if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
An independent pharmacist, butcher, or shop owner used to know his customers and was able to accommodate them. Now they have to work by the rules the corporate entity sets out for them. My grandfather was a butcher and I remember hearing stories about how he’d slip a little extra to people he knew were having trouble making ends meet. You can’t do that sort of thing these days.
Like I said, my grandfather was a butcher. He had his own store. He managed to raise thirteen children doing that sort of work. Today the average wage for a butcher is $12.40 an hour. Try feeding a family of fifteen on that. Oh, I know, they’ve simplified the process so that a butcher no longer needs to be as knowledgeable as he was fifty years ago, his skill set is no longer worth as much. But how is that progress when it only hurts the person doing the work? Who is profiting? It’s not the butcher, the baker, the barber or clerk. Society is no longer based on what is best for the individual or the community but what is most profitable for the corporations. And it’s only getting worse. The theory is we all end up benefitting, but try telling that to the butcher with mouths to feed.