Reflections on small, slow businesses as art and community–WalMart and The Flower Shop by Leonard Koren

A few weeks ago, brilliant colleague responded to one of my brilliant students about her participation in a protest about WalMart moving into Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Richard asks the question in a series of blog posts about what’s so wrong with WalMart:

Yes, WalMart’s wages are awful, where he and very informed commentator discuss findings from a paper by esteemed colleague Marlon Boarnet, and a second post, Marlon Boarnet on his WalMart study.

The major points being, among the technical stuff that gets economists a-going, that WalMart pays terrible wages but offers affordable groceries to those who don’t have a lot of money. As I’ve noted before, I think WalMart has actually retained retail in many rural parts of the country. It gets blamed for driving out mom and pops, but…I don’t know. The mom and pops where I grew up were owned by such elderly people with kids living far away in cities that those businesses had for all practical purposes dried up already. Just my experience, but still.

I was reflecting on these issues yesterday, as I picked up a lovely book by Leonard Koren called The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty & Tenderness in a Commercial Context . It’s about a flower shop (duh, Lisa) in Vienna, and the flower artist who allows her employees to create and experiment and have fun with flowers and customers. Koren is an astute observer and an elegant writer, and while much of what Koren writes is all a bit precious, the people involved in trying to make beautiful things and a beautiful place are too generous and keen to judge too harshly. Workers at the flower shop are encouraged to have fun, play music loudly if they feel like it, laugh and make jokes with customers. Customers are treated as guests. Capitalism and community are balanced together, in a thoughtful, meaningful way. Nobody is getting rich; the point is that life unfolds as a series of pleasant days working with beautiful things and getting to know people. The contributions to the creative life and the community, though, strike me as pretty big: one shopper leaves her little boy there while she runs errands. The shop’s owner tends to give away flowers to children in a willy nilly fashion.

Much of what I personally deplore about WalMart has nothing to do with the larger societal meanings of cheap stuff from China sold to those with limited means, using lousy wages and skunky business practices as the mechanisms for keeping prices low and profits high. I don’t have to approve or condemn it from a policy perspective, as I simply don’t know what the right answer is.

I do know that I personally haven’t been into a WalMart for years because, unlike the flower shop described above, WalMart is too immense, ugly, and impersonal and full of unhappy workers for me to deal with. I am assuming that there are some folks who work at WalMart and who enjoy it; but the last one I was in was so grey and depressing that I never wanted to go back.

I also don’t go to grocery stores, except for Trader Joe’s, which I realize makes me a yuppie elitist, but TJ’s are usually small, still too immensely loud for my taste, but the people who work there seem to be happy enough.

We once in awhile go to a Target in Baldwin Hills. I can only manage about a quarter of its acreage before I start to get overwhelmed. But the staff is jovial.

I find I miss my little Iowa chain grocery store: Fareway. I’m sure they weren’t wonderful to work for, either, but you could walk the entire store in less than 10 minutes. Instead of having 25 different types of toothpaste (overwhelming), they had 10, at most. They were closed on Sundays, so that none of their workers had to give Sunday to their job instead of their families and themselves.

Management makes a difference.