Current Location: Fayetteville, AR

Appropriately, I am sitting here recounting our experience today at the Wal-Mart museum while watching Where the Heart Is, a movie in which Wal-Mart plays a central role, a characteristic that can certainly be extended to Bentonville, Arkansas.  Bentonville has a small-town vibe with a charming square and a population that’s nearly doubled in size over the past ten years to just under 40,000 people.  In the middle of Bentonville is Walton’s 5 & 10, now the visitor’s center dedicated to America’s largest retail chain, just a few miles down the road from the supercenter’s headquarters.

Stepping into Walton’s is like waltzing through a time warp, something that I’ve been hoping to experience for quite a while.  For this reason, I’m especially glad that I stopped off in Bentonville as it saved me the $20,000 or so that likely would have been necessary to restore an old Delorean to its tip top, flux capacitor-running condition.  Fortunately today, no such vehicle was required for this trip back to yesteryear.  The storefront features penny candy, comic books, and hula hoops among other popular items such as sock monkeys and BB guns.  Unfortunately though, some items such as the “Bear Brand Hosiery” that we would later see in the museum, weren’t available for sale.

After passing through the storefront, we entered the museum dedicated to Sam Walton’s life and Wal-Mart’s history.  Something that struck me about the museum is the obvious dichotomy between Sam’s vision for his stores and the image that many people project onto them.  Sam’s goal, to open stores throughout America that offer goods for the lowest prices, was put into place with the intention of helping Americans to save money on an individual basis in an effort to lower the cost of living for the country as a whole.  It’s a common belief that Wal-Mart has hurt the American economy and culture by closing down local shops that couldn’t offer competitive prices, but Sam saw the casualties of these stores as sacrifices for the overall betterment of the nation.  Whether or not someone agrees with Wal-Mart, Sam’s patriotic spirit always told him that he was working for the greater good of the consumer, and he clearly felt pride in this success throughout his lifetime.

We walked through many interesting exhibits, one of the highlights for me being the display of items that had been returned to Wal-Mart over the years along with the explanations given upon their return. One tennis racket that had been destroyed by a customer was returned because he “could not serve well with it.”  Similarly, a kitchen mixer was sent back for being “possessed.”  Sam believed that Wal-Mart’s only true boss is the consumer, and he made it a store goal to receive “zero complaints.”  Because of this policy, Sam personally responded to letters from displeased shoppers and items such as a Stanley vacuum bottle, produced in 1954 before the first Wal-Mart store was opened, were taken back for full refunds.

The museum also features a recreation of Sam Walton’s office.  I enjoyed this display, particularly because I have now seen a couple of replicated offices over the past two weeks, so I am starting to understand that this practice is somewhat of a “thing” in the American museum culture.  I think that so far out of all of them, Fred Flintstone’s office is my personal favorite although Sam’s isn’t too far off.  Sam’s office appears slightly cluttered and is filled with remarkably modest furnishings including a desk that I suspect he picked up at his local Wal-Mart.  Though he became the richest man in America at one point, Sam continued to drive his 1979 Ford pickup truck, remarking to critics, “what do you want me to drive my dogs around in?  A Rolls-Royce?”

In addition to Sam’s personal things, the museum also houses many of the original items sold in the first stores of Wal-Mart as well as special edition items, such as a 25th anniversary commemorative edition Barbie doll.  Although some of these items are still sold today, Sam’s prices have evidently gone up over the years because the standard broom currently sold in the storefront portion of the museum retails at $25.00.  Perhaps this particular model comes with a Quiddich lesson from Harry Potter.

After checking out the museum, Melanie, my dad, and I went next door to Station Cafe where they sell “the best cheeseburger in town.”  I thought that this proclamation was curious because on Saturday, we went to a different place that also offers “the best cheeseburger.”  This contradiction initially confused me, but then I realized that in a booming town like this one, the rankings must change overnight.

Station Cafe had great cheeseburgers but even better service.  The service was so great, in fact, that we didn’t have to suffer through more than three consecutive minutes of conversation before one of the servers came to check on us or ask us if we needed anything.  The workers were so overly accommodating at Station Cafe that I was tempted to ask for a bucket of gold just to see what they came up with.  It was nice to be in a place that catered so intently to the customer though and even nicer to see that they had received the Reader’s Choice Award for “Best Freedom Fry” in Benton County.  Ah, the Freedom Fry.  I wonder if there is a similar stance in Paris to avoid all food with connections to Arkansas.

The purpose of my trip across America is to see the country, and I personally believe that it’s impossible to get closer to the “American dream” than Sam Walton did, so I feel like seeing his museum was one of the best experiences that I will have in an effort to meet my goal.  I am very glad that I visited this store and its exhibits because it reaffirms the notion for me that if a person presses on with the things that he or she enjoys and takes pride in, great success can follow.  To honor Sam’s legacy and because Bentonville is also close to the Daisy BB Gun Headquarters in nearby Rogers, Arkansas, Melanie and I decided that we would be remiss in failing to purchase our own Walton’s 5 & 10 Edition BB guns. Don’t worry though, we haven’t shot our eyes out yet.

Today wraps up my time in Arkansas, and tomorrow, I will proceed along with my tour of Middle America by heading to Evansville, Indiana where among other things, I will see the house that was used in the exterior shots in the show, Roseanne.  Though I don’t expect that Dan or Roseanne will be there to open the door for me, I do hope that I will get a good sense of the town that kicked off one of the longest running shows focused on portraying “quintessential America.”  I hope you all check it out with me when I post the pictures tomorrow! Thanks for reading about our time today at Wal-Mart – I hope everyone is having a good week!

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