Local businesses: be more than Not Walmart

Letters to the Portland Phoenix editors, April 13, 2012

Within the last two weeks, both my girlfriend and I have been treated condescendingly by independent storeowners in Portland. The nature of our interactions has led us to question the very "Keep Portland Independent" philosophy that led us to relocate here in January.

In both cases, the merchant pulled the dirtiest trick in the book: the Walmart Card. "Oh, I don't have that (insert product here), but Walmart does." I add italics because the word "Walmart" was said to us as if it were dirty — merchants' heads cocked in order to peer over glasses, lips dripping with disdain as they spit the commercial anti-Christ that is bound to make any self-respecting Portlander gasp in shock. "How dare he?!" we think, "Do I look like the type of person who shops . . . there?! I'll put him in his place by paying for his service; that'll show 'em."

The Walmart reference is a calculated move to evoke guilt and a negative self-identity. The storeowners know that Michael Moore and poor employee relations have made it uncool and unsustainable to bring our business to the world's 18th-largest public corporation, and that doing so would somehow be "un-Portland." But this tactic does little to celebrate the unique services that Portland's independent businesses offer, and constructs an unhealthy and unsustainable community identity.

A college professor of mine, when lecturing about racism and colonialism in Latin American literature, once said that 'we need to move away from the politics of differentiation and towards the politics of identification." Emphasize what we are, not what we're not. And history shows us how destructive identities — ethnic, geographic, socioeconomic, etc. — can be when constructed in opposition to something (or, in many cases, someone) we are not, rather than in celebration of what or who we are.

"Keeping Portland Independent" unites us in celebration of what this city is. These local business owners were bitterly and rudely focusing on what it is not. Independent storeowners in Portland should highlight the positives they offer — personalized customer service, local products, tradition, community, etc. — instead of disdainfully and condescendingly defining themselves against the Commercial Unhip. The same can be said for this city, in general, as it confronts the inevitable crisis of civic self-identity that accompanies rising fames and fortunes. I, for one, moved here not to get away from New York and Boston, but to come to Portland.

Ned Littlefield

Related: Watertown vs. Walmart, Review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), Customer service, More more >
  Topics: Letters , Michael Moore, Walmart, stores,  More more >
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