Explorers, Superstores, and What It Means to Be New
JAKE: You know back in 1805 William Clark was camping, right here. Right where this parking lot is now. They’d been traveling for like a year and a half. And they camped here. The confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers. They were like—the first people to see it.
CHRIS: I mean except for like all the Indians.
–Samuel D. Hunter, a draft of Clarkston
Jake, one of the main characters in Sam Hunter’s world premiere play Clarkston, is a (somewhat) direct descendant of William Clark, of the famed explorer duo Lewis and Clark. Inspired by his ancestor’s boldness, Jake sets out to follow Clark’s trail across the United States, only to find Chris, who is less than impressed with Jake’s lineage. In the excerpt above, Chris asks Jake to consider what it means to be the first. Is there not always something that came before? And what becomes of it when something new arrives? While Jake traces the footsteps of his legendary forefathers, lamenting that “there’s just nothing left to discover,” Chris asks if anything has ever or could ever truly be “discovered” at all. In an age of such efforts as the push to rename “Columbus Day” “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” it’s an appropriate question.
What makes this discussion all the more relevant, though, is the setting – the parking lot of a Costco in small-town Washington state. As Jake and Chris consider the line between discovery and colonization, they are standing on a site that is significant to that debate not only in terms of American history, but also American commerce. Just as Lewis and Clark represent the “discovery” of a literal new American frontier, establishments like Costco and Walmart represent an equally contentious new frontier of American business – the big-box store.
These big-box stores, or hypermarkets, bring supermarkets and department stores together under one roof, creating giant superstores. The idea behind these stores is – pretty straightforwardly – to increase convenience and lower prices by offering everything their customers may need in a single location. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding: Walmart is now the world’s largest company by revenue.
This mega-popularity of mega-stores is a relatively recent development. While some scholars identify the 1931 opening of one-stop-shopping center Fred Meyer as the birth of the “superstore,” most others consider 1962, which saw the opening of the first Walmart, Target, and Kmart stores in the nation, to be “year zero” in U.S. big-box history. In the following five decades, Walmart has opened more than 5,000 new stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and today it is estimated that an entire third of the U.S. population visits a Walmart every week. The prevalence of these massive big-box stores and their massive effect on the way America shops has even been given a name: “Walmartization.”
The nation’s response to the Walmartization of America, as anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the past decade could probably tell you, has not been entirely positive. But why not? If the experience of shopping at a big-box store saves the consumer time and money, why do so many neighborhoods campaign against the big-box stores opening near them? Because, in the same way that Lewis and Clark couldn’t really claim to discover land that was already occupied by indigenous people, these superstores aren’t opening in a vacuum. Many small, local businesses, being unable to compete with Walmart’s impossibly wide selection and low prices, find themselves out of business within the first few years of a Walmart opening nearby. In fact, on average, within 15 months of a new Walmart store’s opening, as many as 14 existing retail establishments close. While these megastores insist that their presence is beneficial to communities, creating hundreds of new jobs at every location, studies actually show a net decrease in employment as other smaller stores are driven out of business. These “new” jobs reveal themselves, in fact, to be old jobs repurposed, or in many cases lost altogether. But who is to blame? Is this merely the circle of commercial life, an industrial food chain in action? Or is the Walmartization of America a incidence of corporate neocolonialism, smacking of the same imperialistic undertones many, like Chris, find in Lewis and Clark? Again, we are then left to ask: is there really such a thing as “new?”
Perhaps in search of an answer we could turn to Pablo Picasso’s famous observation that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” Or maybe instead, to the third law of thermodynamics: energy can be neither created nor destroyed, merely transformed. But even more likely, along with Chris and Jake, humans will always be forced to grapple with the question: what does it mean to be new, and what obligation do we have to everything that came before? What, if anything, is left to discover?
Top: Sam Lilja and Taylor Trensch. Photos by Karen Almond.