“Big Box” Advances against Flagstaff
Flagstaff, AZ--Ever since a new Barnes & Noble superstore opened here in this small, politically-active college town, a group of anywhere from seven to 20 protesters have been gathering in front of the entrance of the corporate retailer’s outlet.
Carrying "Support Local Businesses--End Corporate Dominance" placards and handing out maps that show how to find local independent bookstores and coffee shops, the protesters have become symbols of this town’s resistance to corporate culture.
Many local residents are angry about the advance of "big box" retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Home Depot, Wal Mart and the like into this rapidly growing community of 60,000. The protesters hope to raise awareness about the broader issues of corporatization and to preserve the small town character of Flagstaff, a robust political activist community at the crossroads of the Grand Canyon, Hopi and Navajo sacred lands, and Northern Arizona University.
"I find it disturbing that communities can't fight the intrusion of these giant chain stores unless they have a legal apparatus behind them, because big corporate transnationals have the legal muscle to sue cities that try to keep them out," said Robin Craig, one of the protesters. Craig and other regulars on the picket line say the drive-by response and blaring of horns has been mostly positive in tone.
According to Roxanne George, cofounder of the Flagstaff Activist Network, which coordinates the activities of more than half a dozen local organizations including the Sierra Club of Arizona and the Animal Defense League, the protest is part of a well-organized, three-year-old "End Corporate Dominance" campaign. The organization has also targeted a local Wal-Mart and a new Home Depot. George said FAN will continue to coordinate the protest in front of Barnes & Noble into the "indefinite future," as well as partner with local businesses to create more support for locally owned businesses.
Flagstaff was home to half a dozen independent bookstores before Barnes & Noble arrived, which represented the first major challenge to the local bookstore trade. The superstore took a highly visible profile—a large building with a turret-like tower overlooking the intersection of historic Route 66, leading into the old downtown area.
Over in the historic district, there was a fire sale going on at Where the Wild Things Are, a children’s bookstore occupying a small storefront. Rick Swanson, the store’s owner, said his decision to close was based solely on B&N's move into Flagstaff. Down the street, McGaugh's Newsstand owner, Lillian Wilson, remains optimistic that she'll be able to hold on to her niche downtown. Her sales were actually up in January, though she acknowledges that other local independents are distressed over the presence of the chain bookseller.
"The problem is that people who are moving here from other metropolitan areas have this mindset that nobody can give you the service and everything you need unless it's a big chain," Wilson said. "Quite frankly, the opposite is often the case. That's what we've worked on for 21 years."
At least one local politician, councilman Norm Wallen, publicly opposed the opening of Barnes & Noble and Home Depot last year and will not run for office after his term is up in June because there was little political support locally for slow-growth initiatives. "The excessive rate of growth here, both residential and `big box,' is destroying the character of Flagstaff. After we hit the 50,000 mark, it seemed to send a signal to the corporate world--`Come and get us.'” Wallen claims he can be more effective in statewide slow-growth initiatives once he is off the city council, which "lacked the will to curb corporate retail growth."
"I don't feel we are a `big box' store," the Barnes & Noble Flagstaff community relations manager, John Harden, told PW. Harden cited the four-month-old store's record of community involvement, which to date included a donation of 200 books to the local Head Start program, various programs with local schools and appearances by some local authors. As for the picketers, he said, "They have a right to be out there."