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Faith in Vermont: I Feel Sad About Target

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Posted on October 24, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



It’s not often that Vermont makes the national news, but on October 19, Vermont leaped to the top of my NPR news feed with the headline: “After 55 Years, Target Will Finally Open a Store in Vermont.”

It may shock out-of-state readers to learn that Target, the retail giant with over 1,800 stores across the nation, lacked a Vermont location before now. But it’s true: When my eight-year-old daughter heard me relaying the news to my husband, she asked, “What’s Target?”

(My eldest daughter reminded her: “Remember? It’s that store in California that has special escalators for your shopping carts.” This is true of the Target store nearest our old home in Berkeley, California, but the shopping cart escalators will likely be absent from the Vermont Target, which, at 60,000 square feet, is considered a “small” Target.)

A Target opening elsewhere would hardly be newsworthy, but Vermont’s capitulation makes it the 50th state to welcome Target. Until now, Vermont’s been the lone holdout, but no longer.

It was a friend who first broke the news to me – joyously -- that Target would open in October 2018 in Burlington’s University Mall. Over the next few hours, my Facebook feed lit up as more local friends rejoiced. The prevailing reaction seemed to be: “FINALLY!” The last time I observed such a groundswell of retail-related elation was when Trader Joe’s opened its first Vermont location in 2014.

I puzzled over why so many of my friends were doing virtual victory dances over a store. From what I could discern, their joy stemmed from the fact that Vermont will have what every other state in the union has: an equal opportunity to buy more stuff. Aside from its ubiquitous red bulls-eye logo, Target’s claim to fame is that its stores are filled withlots of stuff – and relatively inexpensive stuff, at that. It makes Americans happy to buy lots of cheap stuff.

But me, I feel a little sad about Target.

I have lived life both with and without Target, and I can testify that my life without Target has been markedly happier and more fulfilling than when I had a Target (complete with escalators for my shopping cart) within easy driving distance.

Seven years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I could feel this way. I would have echoed my out-of-state friends who gasp and say, “How do you live without a Target?”

When our family resided in California, I made weekly trips to our local Target store. I had multiple children in diapers at the time, and Target was my lifeline for cheap bulk diapers.

I would enter Target with a specific shopping list: diapers, baby food, paper towels. An hour later, and over $100 poorer, I’d emerge with multiple bags filled with things I didn’t really need, but hadn’t been able to resist. The dollar bins would lure me first, then the craft supplies, and then the clothes. They were all such bargains! I was saving so much money!

I know that I’m hardly the only person to have this experience in Target. Like every retailer, Target has an entire team of people who work very hard on getting people to spend money in their stores. They know our habits, our psychology. They know that we’re willing to buy things we don’t need if we believe we’re getting a bargain. They know that we all have gaping holes in our hearts, places we long to fill with love, affirmation, and the sense that we’re okay. And they know that cramming these heart holes full of stuff works for most Americans.

I was a willing Target victim. I didn’t bother to think how spending money on unnecessary “bargains” wasn’t actually saving me money. I felt so happy with all my shiny new stuff when I brought it home. It filled my heart holes – for a day or two. It was a fairly harmless addiction, but like all addictions it wore off after a while when I realized that my $19 cardigan was just a $19 cardigan. Then it was time to go back to Target.

This cycle came to a screeching halt when we moved to Vermont. Without a Target, I was forced to readjust my shopping habits to focus on buying what our family really needed. (There are other big-box stores in Vermont – Wal Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, Bed Bath & Beyond – but, like the coming Target, they’re all clustered around Burlington, an hour’s drive to the north. There’s very little I “need” that’s worth loading four children into the car and driving an hour to buy.)

Rather than being a hardship, the lack of a convenient Target turned out to be a gift. The time I’d once spent shopping was filled instead with healthier things: reading, writing, time in nature and with my family.

Nor does our family lack for anything. The nice thing about living without endless shopping options is that it encourages a community to help each other. We have received a multitude of incredible hand-me-downs, from clothes to books to toys. Our little town has numerous secondhand stores that offer a dizzying array of bargains, while also giving back to the local community. I have accumulated so much store credit from donating our hand-me-downs to Junebug that I haven’t paid for my daughters’ clothes for years, and I’ve scored over a dozen 25-cent books at HOPE, most with the spine not even cracked.

I realize that the joy over Target might not be due solely to materialism. There are also two things that people always mention in these situations: jobs, and the local economy.

The Vermont Target will create 75 jobs. That’s a good thing, and I truly hope that the 75 people who work there will enjoy their jobs. But whenever people start throwing around the promise of job creation, I like to ask, “What sort of jobs?”

Are these jobs meaningful? Do they provide people with opportunities for advancement and learning new skills? Do they make good use of employees’ talents? Will people take pride in these jobs?

These questions are not intended to be condescending. I believe that there are a wide variety of jobs – jobs that require various skill sets and educational levels, jobs at all pay scales – that are meaningful and affirming. I hope this will prove true of the Target jobs. But it’s worth questioning whether the jobs to be provided are such jobs, or whether they’ll just create more gaping holes in people’s hearts.

The argument that big-box stores like Target will revitalize the local economy seems to me a kind of delusional altruism; an argument that allows us to sleep at night after making decisions that may or may not benefit the local economy, but which will certainly enrich huge national corporations.

The fact is, “the economy” is not an unchanging deity before which we all must bow; the economy is the result of community decisions and agreements. The economy is shaped by people -- by us. If we were to agree, for instance, to live within an economic system of barter between self-sustaining family farms and skilled merchants – which worked for millennia – then that would be the economy. For better or worse, we seem to have decided that the economy should be driven by people having unlimited opportunities to consume as much as possible. So our towns become carbon copies of each other. Travel from Connecticut to Texas to California, and you’ll find the same chain stores selling the same stuff we don’t really need. We put apps on our phones to save us from “menial” tasks like grocery shopping and driving, so that we can spend more time on our phones making instantaneous purchases.

The refreshing thing about moving to Vermont was that it was so different from everywhere else. Vermont towns weren’t carbon copies of anywhere else in the nation. Large swaths of land remained undeveloped. We barely got cell phone coverage at our house. And there was no Target.

Will the new Target change my life here? Probably not. After all, I’ve only set foot in Trader Joe’s once since it opened in Burlington (and that was at the invitation of a friend.)

But still, I’m a little sad. Vermont considers itself the “brave little state,” and touts the slogan, “Keep Vermont Weird.”

Now that we’re adding a Target, Vermont seems a little less weird, and a little less brave.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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