The basement of Boyd's for Boys and Girls in downtown Litchfield, Minnesota, looks like a history museum of the worst in children's fashions. All the real duds from the past forty years have accumulated down there: wool pedal-pushers, polyester bell-bottoms, wide clip-on neckties. There's a big box of 1960s faux fur hats, the kind with the fur pompon ties that dangle under a girl's chin. My father, Boyd Anderson, drags all the old stuff up the stairs and onto the sidewalk once a year on Krazy Daze. At the end of the day, he lugs most of it back down. Folks around here don't go in much for the retro look.
At least for now, the museum is only in the basement. Upstairs, Dad continues to run one of the few remaining independent children's clothing stores on Main Street, USA. But this is the age of Wal-Mart, not Main Street. In 1994, the nation's top retailer plans to add 110 new U.S. stores to its current total of 1,967. For every Wal-Mart opening, there is more than one store like Boyd's that closes its doors.
Litchfield, a town of 6,200 people sixty miles west of Minneapolis, started losing Main Street businesses at the onset of the farm crisis and the shopping-mall boom of the early 1980s. As a high-school student during this time, I remember dinner-table conversation drifting time and again toward rumors of store closings. In those days, Mom frequently cut the conversation off short. "Let's talk about something less depressing, okay?"
Now my family can no longer avoid the issue of Main Street Litchfield's precarious future. Dad, at sixty-eight, stands at a crossroads. Should he retain his faith in Main Street and pass Boyd's down to his children? Or should he listen to the pessimists and close up the forty-one-year-old family business before it becomes obsolete?
For several years, Dad has been reluctant to choose either path. The transition to retirement is difficult for most people who have worked hard all their lives. For him, it could signify not only the end of a working career, but also the end of small-town life as he knows it. When pressed, Dad admits that business on Main Street has been going downhill for the past fifteen years. "I just can't visualize what the future for downtown Litchfield will be," he says. "I've laid awake nights worrying about it because I really don't want my kids to be stuck with a business that will fail."
I am not the aspiring heir to Boyd's. I left Litchfield at eighteen for the big city and would have a tough time readjusting to small-town life. My sister Laurie, a nurse, and my sister-in-law Colleen, who runs a farm with my brother Scott, are the ones eager to enter the ring and fight the retail Goliaths. Both women are well suited to the challenge. Between them, they have seven children who will give them excellent tips on kids' fashions. They are deeply rooted in the community and idealistic enough to believe that Main Street can survive.
My sisters are not alone. Across the country, thousands of rural people are battling to save their local downtowns. Many of these fights have taken the form of anti-Wal-Mart campaigns. In Vermont, citizens' groups allowed Wal-Mart to enter the state only after the company agreed to a long list of demands regarding the size and operation of the stores. Three Massachusetts towns and another in Maine have defeated bids by Wal-Mart to build in their communities. In Arkansas, three independent drugstore owners won a suit charging that Wal-Mart had used "predatory pricing," or...