Store Wars

He calls himself an "accidental activist." Executives at Wal-Mart call him, alternately, a self-promoter and a fruitcake (and possibly a few other choice epithets, behind closed doors). But then, Wal-Mart has good reason not to like Al Norman.Since 1993, when he spearheaded a successful campaign to prevent a Wal-Mart from opening in his hometown of Greenfield, Massachusetts, Norman has gone after the retail giant with single-minded -- and bloody-minded -- tenacity. And it's not just Wal-Mart: other "sprawl-marts," such as Home Depot, Target, Kmart, and Rite Aid, have found themselves at the wrong end of his campaign to block their ever-expanding retail empires.But Norman reserves his most inspired hostility for what he calls "the Wal." Though America has had its fair share of consumer advocates -- its Ralph Naders, its Michael Moores -- it's safe to say that Al Norman is unique among them: never in the field of consumer advocacy has one man done so much damage to a single enterprise. In six years, Norman has been instrumental in thwarting 86 megastores in North America (14 in Massachusetts), the vast majority of them Wal-Marts.And he shows little sign of letting up.Norman is currently rallying the troops to stave off a Wal-Mart expansion in Presque Isle, Maine, and a new store in Stratham, New Hampshire. He runs a thriving Web site (, through which he coordinates a small army of fellow anti-sprawlers. And last month, Norman published a book. Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart! (Raphel Marketing) is described by a Wal-Mart spokesman as having "all the makings of a Stephen King novel."Part manifesto and part how-to manual, Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart! certainly contains its share of horror: namely, the aesthetic, economic, and ethical nightmares a sprawl-mart can bring to a host community. But the book has a happy ending in the form of proven sprawl-busting strategies. "We have the power," Norman writes, "to slam-dunk Wal-Mart."Al Norman denies that his campaign is quixotic, or even heroic. "I'm doing something very ordinary," he says. Executives at Wal-Mart would likely beg to differ.Q: As long as sprawl confines itself to the suburbs, are city dwellers in the clear.A: No. There's the doughnut effect: sprawl moves retail out of the city, takes money out of the city. There's a developer out of Virginia, the Mills Corporation, they want to build a huge mall on a naval station outside of Boston. This will encourage people to get in their cars. It's designed to move capital out of the city and into the suburbs. Sprawl has left many cities with empty stores.Q: Your book's called Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart! Why pick on Wal-Mart specifically?A: Wal-Mart is the most aggressive and well-known of the sprawl corporations; they are the worst offender on the globe when it comes to sprawl development. But Wal-Mart is really just shorthand for all sprawl corporations. My bumper sticker says, "I don't shop at sprawl-marts."Q: What is a sprawl-mart?A: It's hard to define sprawl -- like pornography. But you know it when you see it.Q: You managed to prevent a Wal-Mart from opening in your community. I think most people would have left it at that. Why didn't you?A: Because of what I learned about the company. I was just outraged by their behavior. They're a demonizing force in American culture. I just thought that their whole style was offensive, that they were doing very negative things to our country, creating anonymous 'burbs where everything is the same.Q: When you were fighting Wal-Mart in Greenfield, did it ever cross your mind that something even worse might end up on the proposed site, like a meat-processing plant?A: I'm not sure that that would have been worse -- it'd just be pigs of a different nature.Q: This sounds like an emotional issue for you.A: Oh yeah, absolutely. This is not simply intellect that's operating. What people are saying is, "This is where I live, I love this place. I don't want to see it destroyed by a huge dead piece of architecture." People are very emotional. I've seen people rise to great heights of joy and sink to despair over a Wal-Mart. I've seen husbands and wives argue vehemently with each other over this issue. This is a neighborhood buster and a friendship breaker.Q: Ever lie in bed at night and have violent fantasies about Wal-Mart?A: No. I always laugh when they have problems. When a Wal-Mart gets hit by lightning or something, I find it amusing, but I don't have any negative feelings toward the people who work there. I regret that they're working for such lousy wages. I feel bad about that.Q: Don't they have a smarmy TV commercial featuring special-needs employees? Everyone looks so happy.A: They put disabled people and the elderly up front to sell their product. It's disgusting. In their annual report they have people in wheelchairs, they have a kid with cystic fibrosis. This is what people in the industry call "cause-related marketing." They tout their contributions to the Children's Miracle Network. The idea is that you're supposed to think that these nice people who help children with cancer can't be the same people who employ teenage workers in Bangladesh to make their clothes.Q: So it's all propaganda.A: It's all product placement. They're masters at it. They'll support education because public-opinion polls show that people will shop at retail outlets that support children. It's all designed to sell products. This is a company that spends a million dollars every day on image-making. They spent $405 million on advertising last year. It's astounding the amount of money they're spending to make you and me believe that they have that friendly smiling yellow face, when in fact some of the things they've done are pretty unmentionable.Q: One of the chapters in your book is titled "The Evil Empire." Isn't that a bit strong? Can you really say that Wal-Mart is evil?A: Sure.Q: In what ways?A: Well, when a company tries to conceal who makes its products, when it tries to sneak its way into a community, when it creates phony citizens' groups, when it spends its corporate money to try to buy votes in an election. When a company engages in deceptive practices, even down to being sued by the attorney general in Texas for selling a phone card that says it's a 120-minute phone card but, when you try to use it from a pay phone, will cut you off at 40 minutes. The fact that they will sell a product that looks like the Teletubbies, called the Bubbly Chubbies -- reprehensible sales practices, you know, from top to bottom. Yeah, that's evil.Q: Can you pick out the single most horrible thing they've done?A: It's hard to say. There are so many things this company has done that I'm appalled by. Recently there was a story of a Wal-Mart manager coming up $3000 short in the cash register, so he had all the black employees in the store searched. None of the whites. Another one of my favorite stories, I guess you could call it the all-time low: a woman employee who worked for Wal-Mart was raped on the job by her supervisor in the auto-parts aisle, and her back was injured during the rape. She tried to get workers' compensation to pay for some of the therapy for her back, and Wal-Mart tried to block it. They made the poor woman go through three or four years in court to get her lousy workers' compensation. That's maybe a small matter to some people, but to me it was so symbolic of where this company was at. Their own employee had to go through two battles: battling a rapist with a Wal-Mart apron on, and battling the company trying to prevent her from getting workers' comp.Q: Don't you ever feel that you're pissing into the wind? These companies have the kinds of resources that will surely defeat you in the end.A: I don't feel that way at all. Every town we win in is a town that's been made a Wal-Mart-free zone. One town at a time. I don't try to keep a global count of what's going on, because I know how big Wal-Mart is. I don't need to be reminded of that. Every victory is important to the people who live in that community.Q: How much of your life does your campaign consume?A: More than it should.Q: Does it affect your relationships?A: I'm sure my wife sometimes feels like a Wal-Mart widow. She's been great. My whole family finds the whole thing fascinating and amusing.Q: Do you actually enjoy doing this?A: Oh, yes. Yeah. I think that that's one of the reasons I can do it. I approach it with a sense of humor. Wal-Mart says I'm entertaining. They say, "Al Norman is a legend in his own mind. He's an entertainer. He gives the same speech every time." You know, they say these things about me and I find it amusing. When people write to me and say "Get a life" and rant and rave about what an idiot I am, I usually respond by saying, "I'm glad there's someone in America still willing to stand up for the big guy." I don't take myself too seriously. I don't want to be so shrill that people can't hear the message.Q: You say that Wal-Mart laughs at you, but you must be such a thorn in their side. Do they ever contact you?A: No, not directly. It used to be that they refused to acknowledge me. They're still extremely reluctant to engage me. They choose, rather, to just disparage what I say. They say that Al Norman's doing this to get rich off our problems. I tell them I could make more, hour for hour, being a bagger at Wal-Mart.Q: Have they ever threatened to sue you?A: No, and I've been saying stuff for six years.Q: Your campaign has obviously been a success; the movement's taken on a life of its own. Do you ever think maybe you should move on to something bigger and more pressing, like the ozone layer?A: I think fighting for hometown America is a pretty pressing issue. Fighting inappropriate development, protecting open space: it cuts across everything from air quality to community economics. Sprawl is sort of a shorthand for our unhappiness with our communities.Q: Isn't there something sentimental, or unrealistic, about fighting for something called "hometown America"?A: There are people who romanticize it, but I don't. There are people who think about Mayberry USA and apple pies on the ledge of the back-porch window. I don't romanticize hometown life. I'm thinking about hometown America as it will exist in the future, not as it has been in the past. I'm not some kind of musty preservationist. I just think that we have to protect the quality of our way of life.Q: You write in the book, "I am not a crusader." But the campaign you're involved in has such an epic sweep -- it seems to me that's exactly what you are.A: I said that because I wanted people to understand that you don't have to be messianic, you don't have to have a world-view to fight, to protect your hometown. I just didn't want to discourage people. People think I'm doing something extraordinary, but I'm not; I'm doing something rooted in our home-rule, local-control philosophy in America.Q: But you've taken the struggle beyond your hometown. Some people might even say the intensity with which you're fighting is crazy.A: I don't think it's crazy to respond to a call for help. I don't go to any communities that don't invite me.Q: But sprawl-marts wouldn't open if people didn't want them.A: I agree with that, I agree with that 100 percent. Ultimately, Wal-Mart is not the villain here: it's us. We are the enemy. We're the shoppers, we have the choice. If we stayed out of their stores, they'd have to find something else to do for a living.Q: How do you respond to people who say, "Look, I shop at Wal-Mart because they've got the cheapest underwear in town"?A: I'd say, take a look at the real cost to you and to your community. That underwear is cheap because suppliers have been muscled around. Workers have been denied decent wages. In other words, that cheap price is the product of exploitation. I think people don't stop to think, "How did that cheap underwear come to me?"Chris Wright can be reached at TAG: This article originally appeared in The Boston Phoenix.

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