The Way We Live Now

September 27, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

STURBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — Sturbridge, Massachusetts. -- It is one of those soft September days in New England just before summer snaps into fall, and Carol Goodwin is taking me on a tour of her town.

We drive past the classic town common flanked by a town hall and a church. We travel down a road familiar to Sunday drivers in pursuit of the trio of fall treasures in this part of the world: foliage, antiques and apples.

Finally, we turn in to the town's tourist attraction, a re-created 19th-century community called Old Sturbridge Village, and leave the car to stroll along the dirt paths, past the herb garden, the broom shop, the tavern. Then, as we watch the ''tinner'' in his costume fashioning heart-shaped cookie cutters out of metal one at a time, Ms. Goodwin says with bemusement, ''This doesn't look like Wal-Mart territory, does it.''

But less than a mile away are pink plastic streamers tied around trees staking out what may soon become Wal-Mart territory. These are the streamers that also stake out a struggle between Sturbridge folk and a distant corporation.

Carol Goodwin is a mother of six who calls herself a homebody. Three months ago, she didn't know much about superstores or big-box buildings or saturation marketing.

In July, this woman accidentally heard about plans for a massive development while she was waiting to talk about recycling before the town's planning board. She saw plans calling for wider roads, more traffic lights, for a store as out of scale for Sturbridge, population 8,000, as an ocean barge for a duck pond.

To her surprise, she's become the spearhead of S.O.S., Save Our Sturbridge. On a hot August night, 700 citizens voted 6 to 1 against the superstore in a non-binding referendum.

When that didn't stop plans, she and a colleague took a trip last week to Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Although reminded by her eldest daughter -- a law student -- ''Mom, don't smile too much,'' Ms. Goodwin brought a basket full of maple syrup, candles, candies and a videotape of the town meeting.

The two delegates were received, heard and politely dismissed.

In this process, the Sturbridge group hooked into a small and ardent resistance movement, a network of groups with newsletters, and soon their own place on the Internet. Wal-Mart is not their only target, but it is the biggest. They are really fighting ''sprawl-marts,'' huge traffic magnets at the intersection of highways, black holes that can suck businesses and everyday social life out of small communities.

This movement is not entirely new. In the 1920s the chains first started replacing the mom-and-pop stores with the A&Ps. Anti-chain legislation was introduced by people who wanted to protect more than small businesses. They unabashedly defended civic spirit, small-town democracy.

As Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, says, ''The belief was that shopkeepers and local owners would have a greater sense of civic responsibility than managers of huge stores accountable to distant profit centers.''

The movement failed in the 1930s. The chains grew into malls, the malls are growing into sprawls. The ''distant profit centers'' of a nationalized economy are now the more distant profit centers of a world economy.

Now the resistance has re-emerged in the remaining hollows of community where people still know each other when they meet on a sidewalk. It's strong in New England where no fewer than 12 towns and one whole state -- Vermont -- have fought the giant.

It's sustained by people who do not want to become part of the drive-by culture, who do not want to pave paradise and put up a parking lot for a Wal-Mart.

Sturbridge has many such people. The town founded in 1738 is by no means untouched by modern times. It has its own McDonald's, its Burger King, its supermarkets. ''This town isn't a museum. I wouldn't want to live in a museum,'' says Ms. Goodwin.

When she went to Arkansas, she memorized a line written by Wal-Mart's founder, the late Sam Walton: ''If some community for whatever reason doesn't want us in there, we aren't interested in going in and creating a fuss.'' This philosophy made Wal-Mart turn away when opposed in some towns.

That mood has changed. Today Wal-Mart insists that the opposition is a vocal minority. S.O.S. may take their struggle to court, but the conflict is less about the law than about a way of life.

Wal-Mart and its superstore sisters make their appeal to Americans as consumers and as job seekers. One person's junk job is another person's welcomed job. One person's unsightly big-box store holds another person's bargains.

But the resistance movement asks us to think of ourselves as citizens with a sense of place and an obligation to take care of that place. ''You know,'' says Carol Goodwin, ''I was reading Sam Walton's book on the way to Arkansas. He sounded like a good man. I think if Sam Walton had lived in Sturbridge, he would have been on our side.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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