Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Necessities

I had to buy some sheets recently. I’m not immensely picky about sheets, but I do have some standards, and I am also not exactly rolling in funds when it comes to buying things to put on my bed. I had the choice between $2.99/pack cheapo sheets with a thread count so minimal that they looked like cheesecloth, or $200/pack, admittedly very nice, fancypants sheets that were not only very expensive, but didn’t actually come in any colours I wanted. And if one is going to spend $200 on sheets, which I am not, one would quite reasonably be a bit persnickety about the colour.

‘Just go to your local big box store,’ someone said in email when I was discussing this dilemma, and I snorted, because the closest big box stores are an hour and a half away. Yes, I’m really going to make a three hour round trip to buy sheets.

I ended up making a note to buy sheets the next time I was in the City, because it wasn’t an emergency situation, it was just a ‘another set of sheets would be really nice to have’ situation. These sorts of things come up all the time; they come up when I need towels, or a tea kettle, or pillows, or any number of other household necessities that aren’t available here. Stores that stock them either have extremely cheap, shoddy goods or extremely expensive things obviously aimed at yuppies stocking up their second homes. Mid-range things are extremely hard to find at local businesses, and there are a lot of reasons for that. The market is small, they can’t get the kinds of discounts bigger stores can, the number of such goods actually being produced is falling. These things are not their fault, but the net effect is that they don’t carry a lot of necessities.

We’re doing better than some places, where you cannot find these things at all, for any price, because the population is just too tiny and there are only a handful of businesses to begin with. Small rural communities with far-flung populations are also struggling with a growing drug crisis, as I discussed when I was talking about Shine, and that’s having a heavy impact on the business landscape in rural areas in the United States. Communities sinking into drug problems do not exactly have a lot of money to spend on necessities, and thus small businesses already struggling in the economy simply can’t make it, and close, which means another set of resources cut off.

The rise of big box stores in the US has been a topic of much discussion, but for many rural communities, they are a lifeline. Stores like Wal*Mart, for example, have expanded their reach considerably, making it increasingly hard to live in an area where you are not within fairly close proximity. And we can talk a lot about the chain’s labour practices, about the high cost behind the cheap goods it sells, about the way it pushes local businesses out of business—in fact, we should be talking about these things, because they are important. But at the same time, residents of rural areas in the United States may rely on big box stores for their necessities, because those are the only stores around, or the only ones carrying goods at the price points people need.

This country is extremely friendly to big business, and this can be seen in a slew of structures that effectively support and maintain dominance for major corporations. The Wal*Marts, the Targets, get tax breaks and other benefits, and are often actively wooed by communities that want an ‘anchor,’ that want some sort of draw. They can negotiate huge savings on wholesale prices because they’re so large, and placing such big orders. Instead of two boxes off the UPS truck, they’re getting an entire big rig worth of goods, and those deliveries are being made to hundreds of stores around the country. Target has mid-range sheets because it can negotiate an extremely good price for them, because it’s such a huge account.

Small businesses don’t have that edge. They don’t have the tax breaks and other economic benefits, they don’t have the bargaining power with vendors, because of their size. And they’re trying to survive in small communities where the net traffic on a daily basis is likely to be very, very small. In rural communities, it’s extremely hard to stock necessities that will meet the needs of all residents. No business wants to take a chance on merchandise it probably cannot sell, and small businesses face problems like having to meet order minimums that are quite beyond their reach. The hardware store isn’t going to sell 100 tea kettles. It’s just not.

Which leaves people in a bind when it comes to obtaining necessities. Rural residents who need the most cost-effective solutions are driven to big businesses, when they’re present at all, which they aren’t here, while people who want to support their local communities, in communities that have local businesses who stock any kind of necessities at all, are trapped in a tough place. People are chastised for buying at big box stores or ordering online but there’s not a recognition that there are few viable alternatives in many communities. Those that do recognise this often attack the local businesses, demanding to know why they can’t get it together and stock x, y, or z, but this ignores the fact that many businesses would be happy to do so, and can’t, because of the pricing structures, because of the breaks for big corporations.

Necessities are not a quick drive away in many rural communities, or even a quick Internet away, given the lack of access to broadband in rural areas. We’re belittled for shopping at big box stores, treated like trash for ‘not supporting local businesses,’ but we’re provided with few alternatives. What are you supposed to do when you need sheets?