The Family Dollar
by Catherine Schmitt
Taxicabs idle in the parking lot, engines running against the cold, drivers watching the abandoned gas station-convenience store on the opposite side of the street.
One block away, wrapped in vinyl siding, stands the house where Henry David Thoreau stayed during his journeys to and from the Maine woods and the upper reaches of the Penobscot River.
White devils of snow swirl across the asphalt. The lights are on inside the store, a beacon of abundance anchoring the corner of State Street and Broadway.
Coke (Pepsi products coming soon!)
giant plastic candy canes
seasoned butter beans
+ canned collards
the average consumer unit spending
on food in 2010, according to
the U.S. Census.
“Consumables” like groceries make up seventy percent of Family Dollar sales. The only other place to buy groceries downtown is the supermarket across from the waterfront, near the casino.
Campbell’s tomato soup
a pair of shoes
+ B & M Brick Oven baked beans
the average American’s annual spending
on food when Leon Levine opened the
first Family Dollar store in Charlotte,
North Carolina, in 1959.
During his travels in northern Maine in the 1850s, Thoreau’s hosts and guides fed him sweet cakes and venison, shad and salmon, ham, eggs, potatoes, mountain cranberries, tea sweetened with molasses.
leopard-print hat and scarf set
Old Spice body wash
wireless phone (no contract needed)
+ Fast Fixin’ Chicken Tenders
number of Family Dollars,
and Dollar Trees
in the United States.
At one-tenth the size of Wal-Mart, a dollar store can squeeze into smaller spaces, an empty lot within walking distance, on a city corner where a woman sells mangoes on the sidewalk, but more likely an open field beyond.
Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro,
Graham Avenue in Bowling Green,
Route 107 in Royalton,
The intersection of Detroit and
Grace in Lakewood,
State Road 52 in San Antonio
Benjamin E. Mays Drive
in southwest Atlanta,
Florida Avenue, Seminole Heights,
A pasture north of Taos,
+ An aging town garage in Lubec
more than one
new dollar store
is built every day.
The Family Dollar on State Street in Bangor, Maine, is one of seven within a twenty-mile radius.
An office in Hong Kong
An office in Shenzhen
639,146 containers shipped
+ from China to the U.S. every year
percent of Family Dollar
merchandise is manufactured overseas.
Thoreau called Bangor “a star on the edge of night.” It was a bustling city on its way to becoming the lumber capital of the world. Beyond spread great forests of spruce and pine, a river full of fish, and territory of the Penobscot Indians, all of it changing by the time of Thoreau’s visit.
one box Family Gourmet
brand macaroni and cheese $0.55,
two-pack scrub sponges $1.50,
on your new baby
+ greeting card $1.00
the total of my last receipt
from the Family Dollar on State Street.
I don’t shop there often. But lots of people shop at Family Dollar a lot of the time.
In 2015, Dollar Tree, Inc. bought Family Dollar, selling 323 stores to rival Dollar General to comply with federal anti-trust law. Dollar General, meanwhile, responded to slow sales by expanding to rural towns, with freshly paved ample parking lots bordered by cut grass, bright yellow and black signs lighting up the night, erasing the stars.
Main Street, Searsport
Main Street, Hampden
Fort Ashby Road in Goodlettsville
Thomas Street in Rocky Mount
East White Street, Preston
K Street, San Miguel, across from the
A farm at the corner of highways
+ 87 & 18 in Rum Creek
Dollar General stores
were planned for construction in 2017.
The plate-glass windows in front of the Family Dollar reflect the low-angle rays of the early setting sun. Crows appear from the north and east, streams of black wings on their way to roost in the trees where pavement meets the river. Cabs idle, waiting for the rush hour calls.
Before he visited Maine, Thoreau wrote: “…and the cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
What does a family need to survive? Paper or plastic, a dollar’s just a dollar. Always more going out than coming in—hard-earned and hard-spent on items destined for flotsam in some distant sea, a box of salt, a bottle of sugar, a can of protein purchased and consumed, in the end equal to nothing but a still-growling stomach, and a shredded plastic bag caught in branches too high to reach.
Catherine Schmitt writes about science, nature, and the environment. She is the author of three books of nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Three Nations Anthology, 1966, Terrain, Collectively Quarterly, Island Journal, and elsewhere, and is archived at catherineschmitt.com. She lives in Maine.