One might have expected a stronger backlash, especially here. Two weeks ago, Walmart announced that it would be closing a hundred and fifty-four locations across the country, the majority of them Walmart Expresses—what the company refers to as its “smallest format” branches. Of the hundred and thirty-six stores that it shuttered yesterday, Fairfield’s was one of only a dozen so-called Supercenters. The Express locations leave relatively minor holes to stitch up, but in Supercenter towns the breakup isn’t so tidy. For them, Walmart provides not just food but a pharmacy, an optician, a money center, an auto center, and a mobile-services provider. Absent its Supercenter’s well-stocked produce aisles, Fairfield now fits the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of a “food desert,” meaning that its residents lack ready access to a source of healthy food.
According to Michele Ver Ploeg, an economist with the U.S.D.A., that’s not quite as dire as it sounds, at least for those who can drive. “Even though the area may not have a supermarket, people tend to shop around,” she said. “They will get in their cars, if they have one, and go to another store.” (There is a Walmart in Hueytown, a ten-minute drive away.) For those without cars, though, the Supercenter’s closure will hit harder, especially given that a bus stop sits within view of the store’s entrance. Nearly twenty per cent of Fairfield’s eleven thousand residents are sixty or older. One in four lives below the poverty line. “It’s going to be bad for a lot of people,” Elizabeth Theresa Brown told me on Thursday, as she waited at the Walmart bus stop for a ride to nearby Ensley. She used to shop at the Fairfield location three or four times a week. Now that she’ll need to make two transfers to get to the next-closest grocery store, she thinks that she’ll make far fewer trips. “It’s gotten so rough,” she said.
When Walmart came to Fairfield, in 2006, its arrival didn’t conform to the town-devouring narrative that dogs the megachain. According to Michael Hicks, a professor at Ball State University, in Indiana, and the author of a book on the company’s economic effects, Walmart is not the small-business bogeyman we assume it to be. “There is very little compelling evidence that Walmart crushed small businesses,” he said. “On the contrary, Walmart killed Sears and Kmart.” In fact, the company can sometimes benefit small towns. Research by Stan Keil and Lee Spector, also of Ball State, shows that Walmart’s presence in Alabama has narrowed the unemployment gap between black and white residents. More broadly, Walmart’s price pressures lower local retail costs “probably the equivalent of a month of grocery bills for a low-income family,” Hicks said. Certain nearby businesses cash in, too; there’s trickle-down traffic to be had for the gas station or the restaurant that sits within a Walmart’s halo.
That may be why, when I asked James Carroll, another shopper, about the closure, his first response had nothing to with how it affected him personally. “I feel terrible about the economy of Fairfield,” he said. Likewise Johnny Kiesler, who led off with, “Fairfield’s going downhill.” Darnell Gardner, the president of the City Council, has estimated that the store accounted for forty per cent of Fairfield’s tax base. And according Brian Nick, a spokesman for Walmart, a hundred and eighty of the store’s two hundred and eighty employees have already been placed in jobs in other nearby locations. That’s a hundred and eighty people no longer spending the bulk of their time and disposable income in Fairfield. The people who worked and shopped at Walmart didn’t necessarily live in town, but the taxes on their purchases certainly did, as did the property tax on the hundred-and-eighty-seven-thousand-square-foot building the Supercenter inhabited for nearly a decade.
On the day the Walmart in Fairfield, Alabama, closed, the parking lot was very nearly full. The same couldn’t be said of the shelves inside. A week of steep discounts had emptied most of the store’s merchandise; entire aisles were left barren, some cordoned off, like a crime scene, with yellow caution tape. Employees stood in loose, idle clusters. Only apparently unmovable inventory—canned pumpkin and irregularly sized air filters—remained in quantity. For the majority of customers and store employees, the death of Fairfield’s Walmart was less earth-scorching pestilence than serious annoyance. Ladye Clay, who had been bargain-hunting almost every day since the closure was announced, told me that she would have to “rearrange some things” in her weekly routine. “I get my hair and nails done next door,” she said. Several of her fellow-customers seemed less disappointed by the closure than by the news that wine and beer would not be included in the storewide seventy-five-per-cent-off sale.