The House that Sam Built


The road from Tulsa to Bentonville, Arkansas winds through some beautiful and barren American countryside. It’s the kind of place where lone farm houses are often the only disruptions of a horizon that stretches towards infinity. That, and the occasional Walmart truck. 

In case you don’t know, Walmart, the world’s largest company ($378 billion in revenue in 2007), is headquartered here in Bentonville, an otherwise unremarkable town in the northwest corner of the state. 

After driving through parts of the rural south this past week, arriving in Bentonville is something of a shock. The city itself has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, as Walmart rose from a small regional retailer to the largest company on the planet and, by a factor of four, the largest employer in the country (2 million and counting).

A decade ago there was no Starbucks here, no Gap. There was also no synagogue, but more on that later. Today, the place is bustling and everything has the sort of just-built, fluorescent gloss typical of, well, a Walmart store. After seeing the decay of other southern towns this week — some of it arguably wrought by Walmart’s impact on the local retail trade — it’s surreal, to say the least, to see a place experiencing such rapid growth. Massive six lane roads slice through the landscape here, dotted by just about every national retail and restaurant chain you can imagine, all the result of one man’s phenomenal realization of the American dream. 

Sam Walton was the owner of a small five and dime on Bentonville’s main square in 1962 when he opened the first Walmart store in nearby Rogers. The original Walton’s is still there, now turned into a museum of the company’s history and something of a shrine to the man himself. His custom Ford pickup is there, rust stains and all, and his office is rebuilt inside precisely as he left it when he died in 1992, down to the cheap wooden paneling and the placement of two briefcases on the floor. Even his books are there, including several volumes about the business tycoon Armand Hammer and (I found this interesting) a copy of Allan Bloom’s treatise, "The Closing of the American Mind."

What has happened since is nothing short of staggering. There’s so much written on this, I can’t really add anything except to note that one unintended consequence of Walmart’s rise has been the birth of the first new synagogue in the south in at least a generation, and probably several. 

Tonight the community will light a Chanukah menorah on the Bentonville town square, in spitting distance of Sam’s original store. They’ll sing songs and then retire to the synagogue for latkes and holiday cheer. It’s amazing to contemplate after seeing the steep decline of Jewish life elsewhere in the south, perhaps just as amazing of the meteoric rise of the company that made it all possible. 

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