main street vs. walmart

In small rural towns all over the United States, there are a lot of empty storefronts. These great little main streets have a wealth of simple, pedestrian-scaled buildings that, if not already empty, are small, locally-owned family businesses barely hanging on. Where has the hardware store gone? How about the pharmacy, little dry-goods store, bank, optician, deli, coffee shop, gun shop, and green grocer?

If they are at all like Farmville, Virginia, and in my experience many of them are, they are located in one, massive building, about the same size and length, out by the bypass – Walmart. There’s plenty of parking, the prices are cheap, and it’s air-conditioned. And it may be the death of small town America.

In a recent week spent in Farmville, I went up and down Main Street, into the fine Walker’s Diner and some local shops and also out to the Walmart (the only place to left to buy a fishing rod). The interactions between customers and owner/employees at the local shops was significantly more meaningful and humane than anything I witnessed at the big box store. I know I am beating a dead horse, and that almost everyone decries this loss of the local, small-scale businesses, but it is quite a different thing to see and feel it on the ground than to read it in the news or hear about it anecdotally.

I have spent a fair amount of time in my career as an architect, working within, writing and administering building guidelines meant to bolster and restore once vibrant small retail downtowns. Committees, boards, architects, owners, and citizens fret over the size of storefront windows and sign bands whenever a new addition to a cherished old-timey Main Street is proposed. My advice to myself and to the rest: just look at the storefronts of Farmville, almost perfect in the scale and variety, warmth and details. And almost all in jeopardy.

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