The Last Juror - Page 35

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Big news hit Clanton in the spring of 1978, Bargain City was coming! Along with McDonald's and the fast-food joints that followed it around the country, Bargain City was a national chain rapidly marching through the small towns of the South. Most of the town rejoiced. Some of us, though, felt it was the beginning of the end.

The company was taking over the world with its "big box" discount warehouses that offered everything at very low prices. The stores were spacious and clean and included cafes, pharmacies, banks, even optometrists and travel agents. A small town without a Bargain City store was irrelevant and insignificant.

They optioned fifty acres on Market Street, about a mile from the Clanton square. Some of the neighbors protested, and the city council held a public hearing on whether to allow the store to be built. Bargain City had met opposition before, and it had a well-oiled and highly effective strategy.

The council room was packed with people holding red-and-white Bargain City signs - BARGAIN CITY - A GOOD NEIGHBOR and WE WANT JOBS. Engineers, architects, lawyers, and contractors were there, with their secretaries and wives and children. Their mouthpiece painted a rosy picture of economic growth, sales tax revenues, 150 jobs for the locals, and the best products at the lowest prices.

Mrs. Dorothy Hockett spoke in opposition. Her property was adjacent to the site and she did not want the invasion of noise and lights. The city council seemed sympathetic, but the vote had long since been decided. When no one else would speak against Bargain City, I stood and walked to the podium.

I was driven by a belief that to preserve the downtown area of Clanton we had to protect the stores and shops, cafes and offices around the square. Once we began sprawling, there would be no end to it. The town would spread in a dozen directions, each one siphoning off its own little slice of old Clanton.

Most of the jobs they were promising would be at minimum wage. The increase in sales tax revenues to the city would be at the expense of the merchants Bargain City would quickly drive out of business. The people of Ford County were not going to wake up one day and suddenly start buying more bicycles and refrigerators simply because Bargain City had such dazzling displays.

I mentioned the town of Titus, about an hour south of Clanton. Two years earlier, Bargain City opened there. Since then, fourteen retail stores and one cafe had closed. Main Street was almost deserted.

I mentioned the town of Marshall, over in the Delta. In the three years since Bargain City opened, the mom-and-pop merchants of Marshall had closed two pharmacies, two small department stores, the feed store, the hardware store, a ladies' boutique, a gift shop, a small bookstore, and two cafes. I'd had lunch in the remaining cafe and the waitress, who'd worked there for thirty years, told me their business was less than half of what it used to be. The square in Marshall was similar to Clan-ton's, except that most of the parking spaces were empty. There were very few folks walking the sidewalks.

I mentioned the town of Tackerville, with the same population as Clanton. One year after Bargain City opened there, the town was forced to spend $1.2 million on road improvements to handle the traffic around the development.

I handed the Mayor and councilmen copies of a study by an economics professor at the University of Georgia. He had tracked Bargain City across the South for the previous six years and evaluated the financial and social impact the company had on towns of less than ten thousand. Sales tax revenues remained roughly the same; the sales were simply shifted from the old merchants to Bargain City. Employment was roughly the same; the clerks in the old stores downtown were replaced by the new ones at Bargain City. The company made no substantial investment in the community, other than its land and building. In fact, it would not even allow its money to sit in local banks. At midnight, every night, the day's receipts were wired to the home office in Gainesville, Florida.

The study concluded that expansion was obviously wise for the shareholders of Bargain City, but it was economically devastating for most small towns. And the real damage was cultural. With boarded-up stores and empty sidewalks, the rich town life of main streets and courthouse squares was quickly dying.

A petition in support of Bargain City had 480 names. Our petition in opposition had 12. The council voted unanimously, 5-0, to approve it.

I wrote a harsh editorial and for a month read nasty letters addressed to me. For the first time, I was called a "tree-hugger."

Within a month, the bulldozers had completely razed fifty acres. The curbs and gutters were in, and a grand opening was announced for December 1, just in time for Christmas. With money committed, Bargain City wasted no time in building its warehouse. The company had a reputation for shrewd and decisive management.

The store and its parking lot covered about twenty acres. The outparcels were quickly sold to other chains, and before long the city had approved a sixteen-pump self-serve gas station, a convenience store, three fast-food restaurants, a discount shoe store, a discount furniture store, and a large grocery store.

I could not deny advertising to Bargain City. I didn't need their money, but since the Times was the only countywide paper, they had to advertise in it. (In response to a zoning flap I stirred up in 1977, a small right-wing rag called the Clanton Chronicle was up and running but struggling mightily.)

In mid-November, I met with a representative of the company and we laid out a series of rather expensive ads for the opening. I charged them as much as possible; they never complained.

On December 1, the Mayor, Senator Morton, and other dignitaries cut the ribbon. A rowdy mob burst through the doors and began shopping as if the hungry had found food. Traffic backed up on the highways leading into town.

I refused to give it front page coverage. I buried a rather small story on page seven, and this angered the Mayor and Senator Morton and the other dignitaries. They expected their ribbon cutting to be front and center.

The Christmas season was brutal for the downtown merchants. Three days after Christmas, the first casualty was reported when the old Western Auto store announced it was closing. It had occupied the same building for forty years, selling bicycles and appliances and televisions. Mr. Hollis Barr, the owner, told me that a certain Zenith color TV cost him $438, and he, after several price cuts, was trying to sell it for $510. The identical model was for sale at Bargain City for $399.

The closing of Western Auto was, of course, front page news.

It was followed in January by the closing of Swain's pharmacy next to the Tea Shoppe, and then Maggie's Gifts, next door to Mr. Mitlo's haberdashery. I treated each closing as if it were a death, and my stories had the air of obituaries.

I spent one afternoon with the Stukes twins in their hardware store. It was a wonderful old building, with dusty wooden floors, saggy shelves that held a million items, a wood-burning stove in the back where serious things got debated when business was slow. You couldn't find anything in the store, and you weren't supposed to. The routine was to ask one of the twins about "the little flat gizmo that screws into the washer at the tip of that rod thing that fits into the gadget that makes the toilet flush." One of the Stukes would disappear into the slightly organized piles of debris and emerge in a few minutes with whatever it took to make the toilet flush. Such a question could not be asked at Bargain City.

We sat by the stove on a cold winter day and listened to the rantings of one Cecil Clyde Poole, a retired Army major, who, if put in charge of national policy, would nuke everyone but the Canadians. He would also nuke Bargain City, and in some of the roughest, most colorful language I'd ever heard he ripped and blasted the company with great gusto. We had plenty of time to talk because there were almost no customers. One of the Stukes told me their business was down 70 percent.

The following month they closed the doors to the store their father had opened in 1922. On the front page, I ran a photo of the founder sitting behind a counter in 1938. I also fired off another editorial, sort of a wise-ass "I-told-you-so" reminder to whoever was out there still reading my little tirades.

"You're preachin' too much," Harry Rex warned me over and over. "And nobody's listenin'."

* * *

The front office of the Times was seldom attended. There were some tables with copies of the current edition strewn about. There was a counter that Margaret sometimes used to lay out ads. The bell on the front door rang all day long as people came and went. About once a week a stranger would venture upstairs where my office door was usually open. More often than not it was some grieving relative there to discuss an upcoming obituary.

I looked up one afternoon in March 1979 and there was a gentleman in a nice suit standing at my office door. Unlike Harry Rex, whose entrance began on the street and was heard by everyone in the building, this guy had climbed the stairs without making a sound.

His name was Gary McGrew, a consultant from Nashville, whose area of expertise was small-town newspapers. As I fixed a pot of coffee, he explained that a rather well-financed client of his was planning to buy several newspapers in Mississippi during 1979. Because I had seven thousand subscribers, no debt, an offset press, and because we now ran the printing for six smaller weeklies, plus our own shoppers' guides, his client was very interested in buying The Ford County Times.

"How interested?" I asked.

"Extremely. If we could look at the books, we could value your company."

He left and I made a few phone calls to verify his credibility. He checked out fine, and I collected my current financials. Three days later we met again, this time at night. I did not want Wiley or Baggy or anyone else hanging around. News that the Times was changing hands would be such hot gossip that they'd open the coffee shops at 3 A.M. instead of 5.

McGrew crunched the numbers like a seasoned analyst. I waited, oddly nervous, as if the verdict might drastically change my life.

"You're clearing a hundred grand after taxes, plus you're taking a salary of fifty grand. Depreciation is another twenty, no interest because you have no debt. That's one-seventy in cash flow, times the standard multiple of six, comes to one million twenty thousand."

"And the building?" I asked.

He glanced around as if the ceiling might collapse any moment. "These places typically don't sell for much."

"A hundred thousand," I said.

"Okay. And a hundred thousand for the offset press and other equipment. The total value is somewhere in the neighborhood of one-point-two million."

"Is that an offer?" I asked, even more anxious.

"It might be. I'll have to discuss it with my client."

I had no intention of selling the Times. I had stumbled into the business, gotten a few lucky breaks, worked hard writing stories and obituaries and selling pages of ads, and now, nine years later, my little company was worth over a million dollars.

I was young, still single though I was tired of being lonely and living alone in a mansion with three leftover Hocutt cats that refused to die. I had accepted the reality that I would not find a bride in Ford County. All the good ones were snatched up by their twentieth birthday, and I was too old to compete at that level. I dated all the young divorcees, most of whom were quick to hop in the sack and wake up in my fine home, and dream about spending all the money I was rumored to be making. The only one I really liked, and dated off and on for a year, was saddled with three small children.

But it's funny what a million bucks will do to you. Once it was in play, it was never far from my thoughts. The job became more tedious. I grew to resent the ridiculous obituaries and the endless pressure of the deadlines. I told myself at least once a day that I no longer had to hustle the street selling ads. I could quit the editorials. No more nasty letters to the editor.

A week later, I told Gary McGrew that the Times was not for sale. He said his client had decided to buy three papers by the end of the year, so I had time to think about it.

Remarkably, word of our discussions never leaked.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller