‘The Wrong Victim’ by Richard Zowie

This is a short story in two installments I wrote while producing a weekly column for the Genesee County Herald newspaper in Michigan. Because the story is a suspense thriller, I wrote it for the Halloween season. It was an effort at writing something different. I also wanted to delve into fiction writing.

When it came out, a few readers thought the events had really happened, despite the disclaimer that it was a work of fiction. With that in mind, let me reiterate: this is a work of fiction. Nobody was harmed in the writing of this short story. All of the characters exist solely within my mind.

Here is it now for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.

The Wrong Victim

By Richard Zowie

Joseph Davidson sat on a beige couch, easily the cleanest one he’d ever sat on. In fact, the entire house looked so clean and tidy he wondered if this homeowner was the inspiration for his parents’ favorite show, Monk. The house looked immaculate, smelled of Pine Sol and bleach and made Joseph’s olfactory nerves think of a freshly-cleaned hotel room. Roaches, flies and other insects would die of boredom.

If the owner were there, perhaps Joseph could ask him. But if the owner showed up, that wouldn’t be good.

That was Joseph’s job: sitting on the couch and listening for sounds of the owner suddenly pulling up in his car.

Neither Joseph nor his friends Todd and Jeremy (they were walking around the house looking for money or anything of value could be stolen) knew this owner, but looking at the outside of the house and the fact that the owner drove a Cadillac Escallade, they figured he must have something of value. And it was just outside Thetford Township on Charco Road, which meant it was unlikely police would be patrolling.

And if the owner showed up, they had a backup plan.

Joseph shifted in his seat and hoped nobody would call him on his cell phone. Right now, the only sound he wanted was that of his two friends talking as they walked around the house and looked around (his phone had a tendency to slide out on his pocket, and he hated leaving it on vibrate). He took a quick peak out the window, holding the curtain open with a gloved left hand. All three of them wore rubber gloves so as to not leave fingerprints. Todd and Jeremy were also careful not to toss things around, as all the criminals on TV seemed to do when committing a burglary. They wanted to use this visit to case the inside of the house and save the full-blown burglary for a future visit.

As Todd and Jeremy argued about something, Joseph heard an engine approaching in the distance, about a quarter of a mile down the road. The headlights were on and he could see immediately it was the white Escallade.

“GUYS! He’s back! Let’s get out of here!” Joseph yelled.

His two friends ran into the living room. Todd was six feet tall, very burly with brown, moppy, seventies-style hair and brown eyes. He’d played football at Clio High School his freshman year before his lukewarm grades made that impossible. Jeremy, a freckled redhead, was shorter and skinnier. Joseph was Jeremy’s height but also had dark-brown hair that he kept very short, military style. He seldom smiled and was serious by nature, his blue eyes often lost in thought as he constantly pondered worst-case scenarios.

The three immediately ran out the back door that Jeremy, the brains, had spent five minutes successfully picking its lock. They ran to the thick wooded area behind the house, knowing if they could make it back there before the owner got out of his vehicle, they would probably be out of his earshot. Then, they’d walk through the woods to the next street over, Birch Street, and drive away in their black, eighties Chevy truck that they had parked behind an abandoned old house.

They ran through the woods, Joseph noting absently his jeans didn’t have that annoying bulge normally felt when he had his cell phone. And in five minutes they had gotten in the truck and were driving back to Clio.

 

“Did you guys see anything worth stealing?” Joseph asked. Their plan had been to use some of the funds to buy marijuana and see if someone would buy them a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Todd shook his head. “I think he keeps it in a safe somewhere. Or maybe it’s in his basement, but Jeremy wasn’t able to pick that lock.”

Jeremy laughed. “I’m not that good yet. It would take me about half an hour. If we weren’t concerned about noise, we could just break it down.”

Joseph thought of asking his girlfriend, Lisa, if she knew of a man who drove a Cadillac Escalade but worried about letting others know of their plans. Still, he should call her and tell her he wanted to go to the movies with her later. He reached into his pocket–

–and felt only a few coins and a cigarette lighter.

His eyes widened as he cursed out loud.

“What’s wrong?” Jeremy asked.

“Guys, I think I left my cell phone at the guys house!” Joseph said, his face growing pale. “It must’ve popped out of my pocket on the sofa!”

Todd said nothing for a while as he drove. Finally, he spoke. “Well, we can’t exactly just go back right now.”

“What else can we do?” Joseph asked.

Todd pulled the truck over, pulled out his cell phone and called Joseph’s number.

 

Stanley Rike, having returned from a trip from the Premium Outlets to look for some new cookware for his kitchen, parked his Escalade in the driveway but knew immediately something wasn’t right. People had always thought of him as the intuitive type. Even when he had no evidence of something wrong, he’d still get a strong hunch, and that hunch almost always was right.

He did notice that the curtain in the front window looked slightly crooked and wasn’t nice and straight like he always preferred to leave it.

He sighed as he approached his front door, noting there were no unusual footprints.

A professional blogger, Rike didn’t like to leave his home unless he had somewhere to go. He had lived in Clio for 20 years but always felt like someday returning back home to the Upper Peninsula. He was originally from Newberry and was the grandson of Finnish immigrants (the original family surname had been Räikkönen). Clio was a nice little town, but the Lower Peninsula had never quite felt like home.

The problem was, Rike had far too much invested in his home.

Especially in the basement.

When Rike wasn’t blogging (a job he made a great living doing), he liked to bring people to his home. They were people he’d seen on TV in Michigan who had simply, well, seemed unworthy of their own lives. If asked, Rike could not explain why he chose them, except that it was just a hunch. All he knew is that since each person was completely unconnected (they were of different genders, races, ideals), police probably would have a very difficult time tracing them to him. He would then take them to his house in his secluded neighborhood.

Rike entered his house, closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, opened his eyes.

It smelled like one or two heavy smokers had recently been in his house. Not smoking, but exhaling breath reminiscent of a recent cigarette. He could also smell someone who needed to take a bath.

And on the floor, he saw imprints on his carpet that were not his feet.

Rike saw nothing noticeably out of place but ran to check the door to his basement. Locked, but the knob had smudges on it suggesting someone had been grabbing on it.

He checked his backdoor and found it was unlocked. He always locked it before he left the house. Opening it, he saw three sets of footprints. They must’ve ran towards the woods.

Stanley Rike said nothing but sighed. What did they know? He had to find out.

DOOOOO YOU HAVE THE TIME, TO LISTEN TO ME WHINE?” someone abruptly sang as they played guitar, the sound coming from the sofa.

Rike went to the sofa, lifted up a cushion and studied the black Verizon phone. The screen was lit with the picture of a young man with a seventies-style hair cut. Superimposed over his face was “Todd W”.

Rike pressed the green button and said, “Hello?”

“Can I have my phone back?” an annoyed young man asked. He tried to sound tough but instead amused Rike.

“W-w-why were you in my house?” Rike asked, deliberately sounding weak and passive.

“Don’t worry about it, just meet me in an hour–”

“I must insist you come to my house and ask for it,” Rike replied, hoping his voice sounded as though he’d soiled his pants. “I won’t call the p-p-police.” Of course he wouldn’t. If he spoke to the police they’d probably visit and ask questions and develop a case of sticky fingers like that annoying Vincent D’Onofrio cop on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

The young man sighed. “If you give us a hard time, we might just have to have fun with your pretty wifey.”

Rike said nothing at first as he realized this man and his friends were amateurs. An observant glance at the home would’ve easily revealed that Rike lived by myself. No wife. No girlfriends. No sisters. His parents were long gone, and he hadn’t seen or spoke to his younger brother Phil, a salesman, in about 10 years.

“I’ll be w-w-waiting for you,” Rike said.

“O-o-o-ok!” the man mocked as he hung up.

 

“We’re gonna WHAT?!” Jeremy asked.

“Exactly as I said,” Todd replied. “We’re going to go back and get the cell phone. If we leave it there, he may call the cops, and they could get us for breaking and entering, which means we could all go to jail. We get it, we threaten him and tell him if he keeps his mouth shut, he’ll never hear from us again. Problem solved.”

Joseph listened and frowned. “You REALLY think it’s going to be that easy, Todd?”

“Sure it will. You shoulda listened to that guy on the phone. It sounded like he was scared to death. He’s probably having to change his underwear right now. He reminded me of those kids we used to bully all the time. Piece of cake, guys.”

 

Rike made a quick trip to his basement and then sat down on the couch and waited. Hidden on his person was a cattle prod, and they would never see it coming. He’d done it many times against far more dangerous people. Thank God I’m far stronger than I look, he thought.

As Stanley Rike sat on the couch and kept glancing out the window to see if a vehicle with three young men had pulled up, he wondered. What did they know and had they told anyone? How would he dispose of the bodies?

He might even have to question them in that special soundproof room in the basement and start by removing body parts they’d miss.

 

Two weeks later, this article appeared in the Genesee County Herald:

Three Clio friends missing

By Kevin Reagan

Police say they still have no fresh leads in the disappearance of three young Clio adults.

Joseph Davidson, 21, Todd Williams, 22, and Jeremy Lundquist, 22 were reported missing two weeks ago.

According to police, the three were close friends who did everything together. Each had cell phones and on the day they were reported missing, October 13, Williams texted his girlfriend that he was driving with Davidson and Lundquist up to Mio to look for a hunting spot. The three planned to head up that direction in November during Deer Widows Weekend.

A Clio Police Department spokesman acknowledged that Davidson, Williams and Lundquist all had criminal records consisting of several misdemeanors but declined comment on whether or not foul play is suspected. Several anonymous teachers at Clio Schools acknowledged that the trio had a lengthy history of disciplinary problems, beginning in elementary school…

Post comments here or email them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

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A day in the life of Richard Zowie, writer or: One Day in the Life of Richard Richardovich

I couldn’t resist paying homage to the late Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by naming this blog posting the way he did his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Russian: Odin Dyen’ Ivana Denisovicha). No, I’m not in a Russian gulag, although in the winter here in Michigan it might seem that way.

My middle name is actually Paul, but in Russian the middle name is actually the patronymic, meaning a name that identifies your lineage. Richardovich simply means “Son of Richard” since my Dad’s name is Richard. Dad, whose own father went by Paul, would be Richard Pavlovich (the Russians transliterate Paul as Pavel).

The one or two readers of this blog might wonder a writer like me does on a daily basis. Since Monday’s the day I complete my assignments for the week, I thought I’d take you through a typical Monday:

7:30 a.m. — I wake up and thank the person who designed cell phones to have alarm clocks in them. I try to avoid hitting the snooze button. Shower, something to eat, quick check of e-mail and reminding myself of what I have to do this day.

8:15 a.m. — I drive to work and try to keep observant of what’s said on the radio and what I see as I drive into the coverage area of the paper where I work, the Mt. Morris/Clio Birch Run/Bridgeport Herald.

9 a.m. — I arrive at work, pick up any messages left for me, drop off my time card and my mileage sheet to my publisher’s wife (Lisa) and, again, check my e-mail.

9:15 a.m. — Time to get together with my editor (Craig) and co-worker (Mandi) for a meeting to discuss what we have for the paper that week. This includes what is finished and what we’re still working on.

9:25 a.m. – 5 p.m. — My tasks include but are not limited to: finishing writing stories, proofreading them, making changes as necessary and then e-mailing them to my editor; taking photos and editing out the bad ones. I gather up my photos for the week onto a jump drive and deliver them to my editor. I write cutlines for all the photos. If I submit a set of photos from an event, I make sure it’s accompanied by a short story. Sometimes I may have to go out and take more pictures or gather information for another story. I try to make sure the photos I submit are whittled down to the absolute best of the best. If I take 50 pictures of an event, my job is to submit no more than 10 photos (preferably five) to my editor since it takes time to sift through the photos.

The stories and cutlines and word documents are e-mailed to my editor while, again, the photos go on the jump drive.

Any further unfinished stories, cutlines or other items go home as “homework.” During the busy traffic of the high school sports season (especially during basketball/baseball/track in the spring), I usually don’t get to bed until past midnight.

6 p.m. — I get home, eat dinner, find out how everyone’s day went and–yep, you guessed it–check e-mail.

7 p.m. — I start brainstorming for next week’s issue and then update my blogs. I also piddle around on Facebook (a great way to promote my blogs). Other writing projects (journals, fiction, essays) also get done, along with answering e-mails and looking for off-duty freelance work (writing work I do at home on my own time).

9 p.m. — I watch something on television or watch a movie I rented from Netflix. Favorite shows currently are Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, The Middle.

11 p.m. — Bed. (Earlier, if possible, if I have to go to work at the gas station the next morning and have a 5 a.m. wake up).

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Go where the story leads you

Early on in my professional career when writing feature articles, I learned to keep an open mind when it came to pursing a story and take the story where the quotes and facts lead you. After all, isn’t it easy to try to sway the story a certain direction?

Back around 2001, I wrote a feature article for the San Antonio Express-News about POW/MIA bracelets. As I researched and interviewed, I expected to find an overwhelming amount of people with them along with a huge outcry over those who were still unaccounted for. I found one soldier in San Antonio who collected and wore the bracelets who was willing to be interviewed. I also interviewed two former POWs who both told me they did not believe anybody was left behind.

More recently, when I first wrote my feature on Walmart two years ago, I fully expected to interview one infuriated store owner after another, each sounding off on how Walmart has ruined downtown Clio, Michigan. I found only two like that, and neither would go on record.

And, of course, you’d be really surprised what fascinating tidbits you can find when interviewing somebody. I recall interviewing one horticulturist (I won’t say who or where since I’d like to have an exclusive on this someday) who’s also a professional chef. One of his clients: Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

Then there was the Air Force lieutenant colonel who was headed to New England to run the Boston Marathon. The surname of this Boston-born and bred colonel was Richard; he was of French-Canadian descent and was a third cousin of Montréal Canadiens hockey star Maurice “Rocket” Richard.

Also, when interviewing a young, rising country star in Clio, Mich., his mother mentioned he’d recorded a duet with country music star Mel McDaniel. “Ol’ Mel”, I remembered, was one of my Dad’s favorite country music artists. A message on his website, and a few days later, I phone interviewed Mr. McDaniel for the article. Ol’ Mel couldn’t have been nicer.

Walmart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio, Michigan? Part 4 of 4: Local businesses offer advice on surviving in current economic client

Please click here for Part 1 of this article, here for Part 2 and here for Part 3.

How can businesses survive in a sluggish economy that seems to encourage bankruptcy and other easy way outs? Downtown businesses in Clio, Mich. offer their thoughts on how to make it past the tough times. Their advice is pretty simple and loaded with common sense: satisfy your customers and offer them a quality service that’ll make them keep coming back. If you do that, chances are they’ll tell their family and friends.

Wal-Mart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio?

Part 4 of 4: Local businesses offer advice on surviving in current economic climate

By Richard Zowie

In a time when some downtown businesses close their doors due to lack of customers and sales, some Clio businesses are actually having success. Some even say that Wal-Mart seems to be helping them bring in more customers. Sue Siavoshnia, who manages Silvio’s Italian Restaurant and Lounge on 138 West Vienna Street, said she’s seen a steadiness in the four years she’s been managing the place.

porky's hogg trough

Longtime business owners in Clio say entrepreneurial savvy is needed to stay afloat. Photo by Richard Zowie.

“Maybe I came in during a time when it was slowing down, but I haven’t noticed a lot of changes,” said Siavoshnia, whose father began the restaurant 30 years ago. “We have had some customers say they were out shopping today and came in here to get some lunch, so I do know it’s bringing a little bit of traffic through town and a little business for us,” she added.

Michael Singleton, owner of the Whistle Stop Café at 182 West Vienna Street, echoed some of Siavoshnia’s feelings and said that with the increased traffic flow that Wal-mart brings, the result is more customers coming into his restaurant.

“There are a lot of specialized businesses downtown, so I don’t think they’ll be affected by Wal-Mart,” he said.

And while Wal-Mart has an in-store Subway restaurant, Singleton isn’t worried about the competition.

“We offer a lot of different things that you can’t get at Subway,” he added. “We cater to our customers. If they want something that’s not on our menu but we have the ingredients to do it, we’ll make it for them. You have to give the customers what they want—good service and good quality food.”

For the past 15 years, Mike Switalski has been the owner and manager of Mid-Michigan Sportswear. His business focuses on sports clothing, screen printing and monogramming. He said that sometimes business gets tough because of an economy where people have a hard time finding jobs and, as a result, have less money to spend.

“I’ve seen it better,” Switalski said. “We’re surviving and keeping our head above water. Everything that comes through the door helps, and we try to give the best service we can. Once you’re known and established, people return. That’s good on our end.”

And how does Wal-Mart figure in with the challenges his business might face?

Picture 017

Photo by Richard Zowie

“Wal-Mart has not affected my business whatsoever,” he said. “They can’t offer the service that I do here. Everybody has their own way of marketing their businesses. You have to stay on top of the modern technology. Give good service with good quality. You also have to be there every day and if you’re not there, you’ll lose your job or business. You also have to be dependable and meet with consumer or public.”

Switalski said that he tries to support local businesses whenever he can.

“When it comes to groceries, I go to a grocery store,” he said. “When it comes to Wal-Mart, if it’s something I need and it’s close by to my home, I might stop by there. Other than that, I deal with the business people in downtown Clio.”

How a business can stay afloat when a Wal-Mart comes to town depends on the business, said Jan Barlow, owner of Jan’s Cleaners and president of the Clio Chamber of Commerce. Barlow, who’s been in the dry cleaning business for 25 years, said she’s found that businesses that sell the same products sold by Wal-Mart usually try to make the necessary adjustments and develop their own market share.

Barlow, who said that her comments don’t necessarily reflect the chamber of commerce, commended Wal-Mart for the support it has shown to the Clio community.

“When Wal-Mart came into town, they wanted to be a part of the community and they gave a lot of money to this community to support the projects that are going on here,” she said. “They’re very supportive of events. If someone has a fundraising activity, they definitely want to be asked to participate.

Barlow added that with a vast majority of businesses going under within their first five years of operation, businesses need to be flexible in order to survive. And sometimes offering a great product won’t guarantee success. Barlow noted how much she enjoyed the ribs from Porky’s Hogg Trough, which has since closed. For other businesses, the failure can be attributed to would-be customers simply not liking its name.

“Businesses today have to stay competitive, and they have to constantly be ready to embrace the new technology,” she said. “I think that is the key component. If you are not being computerized, if you are not on the Internet and if you’re not embracing the new software technology, then you’re going to get lost.

“I think Wal-Mart is in the process of trying to reinvent itself,” Barlow added. “Businesses can’t stay the same, and I think Wal-Mart is being a very good citizen for their industry by trying to stay on top of what needs to happen next.”

With Wal-Mart’s presence in Clio, becoming flexible with the times and doing whatever is necessary to keep the customers coming appear to be the two things area businesses need to do to remain part of downtown Clio’s future.

Walmart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio? Part 3 of 4: Walmart responds to its critics

wal-mart2

Photo by Richard Zowie

Please click here for Part 1 of this article, here for Part 2 and here for Part 4.

One of the most important things in journalism is to give each side a chance to give their account of how something occurred. You’d be surprised how Years ago, while writing a feature about a Texas man whose medical insurance would not pay for a kidney transplant, I interviewed a spokesperson for the company to get their side. Last year, when talking to an Oxford Township, Mich. mother about an unsafe path her son had to take to get to the bus stop, I spoke to the school district to get their side.

And with this story about Walmart, it’s only fair to get the department store’s side also.

Walmart, like Kmart and other companies has this policy when dealing with the media: all questions are directed to corporate public affairs. That’s the same thing that happened when I contacted the Clio-area Walmart.

This segment of the story includes incorporating Walmart’s response to its critics. It’s up to you, the reader, to ponder and decide what you think.

Walmart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio?

Part 3 of 4: Walmart responds to its critics

By Richard Zowie

Is Walmart indeed to blame for the demise of some of the Clio Mom and Pop stores? Not so fast, said Nick Infante, Wal-Mart’s Senior Manager for Public Affairs in Michigan. (The management at the Vienna Township Walmart declined to be interviewed for this article and instead referred questions to Walmart’s corporate headquarters).

“We are proud to offer our customers low prices on everyday products,” Infante said. “Walmart keeps shoppers in the community. Local stores have a niche market and a loyal customer base. Our stores help to keep and enhance that customer base.”

This is one trait of Walmart’s that the department mogul officials believe are a benefit to the small-town environment in places like Clio and Thetford and Vienna Townships.

“Walmart not only brings more customers in to a community but it also keeps residents there who may otherwise shop in communities other than Clio,” said Infante. “Additional shopping choices will keep residents here, as they will not have to travel somewhere else to get the things they need.”

When it comes to opening a Walmart, there are various factors that the department store super giant takes under consideration.

“We consider the population of an area and where our customers are traveling from to get to our other stores,” Infante explained. “We take a look at the trade areas and see where we could better serve Walmart customers.”

Are the concerns of citizens or small businesses in a community regarding Walmart warranted? Infante said that much of the resistance encountered when it comes to building another Walmart is based on misinformation.

“Walmart goes to great lengths to meet with the communities we wish to partner with, and work with them through the process,” he said. “Walmart brings many positive things to a community, including jobs with a long-term career path, and a history of giving back to local charities and organizations.”

In fact, Infante added, Walmart has a lot to offer to a small community like Clio.

“Walmart gives the residents of Clio and the surrounding area an opportunity to shop our stores for low prices on quality items at times when it is convenient for them to shop,” the public affairs manager said. “Our stores give, on average, $40,000 back to each community every year to organizations such as police and fire departments, youth sports and other charities. The majority of our giving goes right back into Clio area organizations. Also, the employment of 300-plus associates is also a major benefit to the community, at a time when the Clio area and Michigan as a whole is seeing jobs leave the state.”

Walmart: the culprit for the devise of Mom and Pop in Clio, Michigan? Part 2 of 4: Downtown businesses compete with Wal-Mart’s ‘always low’ prices

always low prices2

Photo by Richard Zowie

Please click here for Part 1 of this article, here for Part 3 and here for Part 4.

Is Walmart responsible for the demise of Mom and Pop stores in America?

It depends on whom you ask.

A few years ago, I went to downtown Clio and asked various businesses their opinion of Walmart. Most were willing to talk. Two businesses, both long-time fixtures in Clio, refused to do so. One told me they had nothing to say while the second initially agreed to be interviewed. They spent about 15 minutes answering my questions and when I called to clarify some comments, they told me they were withdrawing and didn’t wish their comments to be publicized.

The second-thoughts owner, whom I will not identify, had said that Walmart with its cheaper merchandise made it more difficult for the owner to do business.

Other downtown businesses told me, yes, Walmart made it tougher for them to do business, but they didn’t see the department store supergiant as culpable for businesses struggling or closing.

Read and judge for yourself.

Wal-Mart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio?

Part 2 of 4: Downtown businesses compete with Wal-Mart’s ‘always low’ prices

By Richard Zowie

Businesses generally try to acquire a product at the lowest possible prices; the cheaper a product can be acquired and the higher a price it can be sold at, the more profit a business can make. Taylor does find it difficult to compete with Wal-Mart’s low prices, especially when it comes to purchasing flower stock.

“Wal-Mart, along with grocery stores, buys [flowers] for less than what I can buy them for,” she said. “If I were to try to compete with [Wal-Mart’s] prices, I’d be out of business. I’ve even tried to contact the plant grower who sells to Wal-Mart, since they have such a good price on plants, and they told me that they specifically sell only to Wal-Mart. They said they couldn’t supply enough to Wal-Mart as it was, let alone to a small business.

“You see the prices of everything go up, but on flowers people are used to them being at set prices and don’t accept the change. My flowers cost the same that they did for my customers eight years ago. We haven’t raised our prices on them. It’s hard to compete with the grocery stores and everybody that carries them,” she added.

But Taylor also added that when flower shops struggle to stay open, they can’t just blame big-box department stores.

“One thing I see that typically happens is that people say, ‘Oh, a flower business, how cute. I’d really like to own a flower shop and work with flowers.’ But they don’t know anything about the flower business,” she explained. “They’ve never worked in a flower shop. They don’t know how difficult it is, and they’re not floral designers, or they don’t know how to make an arrangement. Word travels when people aren’t satisfied with the work they do…Flowers only last for so long. You have to know how many to buy, what you can sell and move and what the people are looking for. You end up throwing a lot away if you don’t know what you’re doing. With that you get a lot of loss and lose a lot of money.”

Paul Lee, who owns Clio Computers on West Vienna Street at the corner of Mill Street across from National City Bank, said that though Wal-Mart’s prices can be a challenge, knowing your business and your customers can make a big difference. He usually buys five to 10 computers at a time while Wal-Mart might purchase a thousand at discounted prices. While Wal-Mart might be able to buy a higher volume of computers cheaper and sell them at cheaper prices, Lee said there’s much more to buying a computer than just considering its price.

“It’s sad that people look at the bottom line,” said Lee, who’s been in business for six years and has lived in Clio for more than a decade. “I charge you a buck and they charge you 50 cents or I charge you 10 bucks and they charge you eight bucks, that’s what people see initially. I understand people don’t have a lot of money, but they don’t see the service behind it. They don’t see that they can call me at any time. These guys are selling $300, $400, $600 systems, and I don’t even want to compete because their service is in India where they’re being paid $20 per day instead of $20 per hour.”

Lee said that he’s not too worried about Wal-Mart since his philosophy is to offer quality service. This means doing a good job of building computers, repairing them and being available for service calls when needed. In other words, continue doing what he’s been doing.

While the computer store owner is flexible and has a plan for his business, he also sees how other businesses are anxious about their own futures.

“VG’s is here, and then Wal-Mart walks in and everyone flocks there because they’re cheaper. VG’s has been here 20 years and has been helping you, and you forget about that,” Lee said. “There goes your community; you’ve just walked out on your community. That’s what happens to your little Mom and Pop hardware stores.”

Walmart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio? Part 1 of 4: Downtown businesses mixed about department store super giant

wal-mart closeup

Photo by Richard Zowie

Please click here for Part 2 of this article, here for Part 3 and here for Part 4.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for a Michigan newspaper about Walmart and its impact on downtown businesses in Clio, Mich. At first, the editor I freelanced for asked me to shorten it. I did and then I suggested breaking it up into parts. She was interested, but before we could work that out, she resigned from the paper and was replaced by another editor. This new editor declined to run it, arguing the feature was too negative of Walmart. I disagreed with her since I let Walmart respond in detail and since the only two businesses critical of Walmart refused to go on record. Moreover, other businesses I interviewed were surprisingly positive in their thoughts of Walmart.

I wondered which of my blogs to post this under and finally decided to post it here. Yes, I also post fiction here but I still feel it’s better here since From A to Zowie is reserved for opinion. To me, the unbiased news and feature articles should never intersect with opinion.

In fairness, for the story I also asked Walmart’s opinion. The folks at the Clio, Michigan Walmart referred me to corporate public affairs. It took several weeks, but I was finally able to get their answers. They are incorporated into the article.

Is Walmart bad for small-town America? I’ve done my best to allow both sides to give their opinion. Now it’s up to you to read and decide for yourself.

So, here’s part one…

Walmart: the culprit for the demise of Mom and Pop in Clio?

Part 1 of 4: Downtown businesses mixed about department store super giant

By Richard Zowie

www.richardzowie.wordpress.com 

CLIO, MICHIGAN. – Take a drive or walk in downtown Clio, and for some who have grown up here, the sight can be discouraging.

Some buildings, with their rich histories, are vacant with FOR SALE signs in their windows. If walls could talk, the buildings certainly would have endless, illustrious stories to tell about customers, products and services offered throughout the years.

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Downtown Clio, Michigan, Spring 2007. Photo by Richard Zowie

Some businesses, such as Porky’s Hogg Trough, have closed and are now just a memory, a testament of how difficult it can be in today’s economy for businesses to stay afloat. Others struggle to stay in business. Among the many businesses in downtown Clio are an electrolysis shop, jewelry store, hardware store, sports wear shop, chiropractor, dance studio, pharmacy, pet feed and supply shop, insurance companies, mortgage lenders, banks and several restaurants.

When looking at the closed-up shops, the question arises: what ails downtown Clio? Is it the sluggish economy? The collapse of Delphi? The struggles of the Big Three automakers?

Some say the problem is only a couple of miles down on West Vienna Road in the form of a big-box store that offers low prices.

And if you ask around, you’ll find that the subject of Walmart in mid-Michigan is as controversial a subject as the state’s economy, Michael Moore and how to turn the seemingly-incorrigible Detroit Lions into a winning team.

For some, Walmart represents a chance to get department and grocery store shopping done with low prices that are painless for the checkbook and a godsend to a shoestring budget.

For others, Walmart is the epitome of Big Business whose philosophy of “Always Low Prices” forces local Mom & Pop stores to go out of business and threatens to write a disturbing chapter into a town’s economical history.

The debate has almost certainly continued with the opening last fall of a Walmart in the Clio area. Specifically, the store is located in Vienna Township right off of West Vienna Road on North Linden Road just west of Interstate 75. There are seven other Walmarts within a 25-mile radius of Clio. The closest is about 12.5 miles south in Flint. Saginaw has a Walmart. Grand Blanc and Saginaw both have Walmarts.

The Vienna Township Walmart is not the only big-box store in the area. Kmart is located at just east of I-75 on West Vienna Road. And in 2008, a Meijer store will open less than 10 miles north in Birch Run.

Frankenmuth residents have fought efforts to build a Walmart there.

In downtown Clio, especially among the businesses that have been open for decades, mentioning Walmart tends to invoke a lot of mixed discussion. Two businesses had very negative feelings about the department store super giant; one declined to be interviewed for this article while another refused to go on record. Others voiced their concerns about Walmart’s prices and how difficult it is to compete with them. Some businesses said they felt no negative impact from Walmart while some even stated that the store helped downtown businesses.

Debbie Taylor, who owns Floral Expressions on 186 W. Vienna Street, said that when Walmart first opened, she was worried at first.

“I think I’m more concerned about how Walmart affects other businesses in town, since it doesn’t carry a lot of what we carry except for flowers and plants,” she said. “If other businesses in town close, then this town starts looking a lot more vacant than it already is, and that’s not good for us. People then won’t stop [to shop] since there’s nothing in town.”

Taylor pointed out that Michigan’s sluggish economy, particularly in the auto industry, has not helped the local economy.

“We were affected a lot more when Delphi announced they were going bankrupt than when Walmart opened,” she said.