I have a confession to make: I used to like dollar stores. For this, as for many other things, I blame my parents. They immigrated to the US with virtually nothing and climbed their way into solid middle class respectability — without ever losing their immigrant mentality regarding money. This meant a number of things: never saying no to free stuff (did my dad ever love those big computer conventions ), never buying ice cream from the ice cream truck (because it cost four times as much as getting it at the supermarket), and bargain hunting as if it were a world class sport.
Friday nights were spent at Big Lots, followed by a massive Dollar Tree (both helpfully located within a two block radius). Saturday mornings were spent at garage sales and flea markets. We never bought a lot of stuff — more often than not, we came out empty-handed — but it was our form of entertainment and, er, quality family time. Dollar stores, redolent with the smells of cheap new plastic, carpet square adhesive, and off-label cleaning goods, are as much a component of my childhood memories as homemade birthday cakes and half-melted crayons.
Over the years, I’ve found a number of goodies at dollar stores. Organic cotton and bamboo socks, stone coasters, pillowcases with cool tree patterns on them, fairy wrapping paper, and even surprisingly decent books. But I now also realize how emblematic dollar stores are of our national love affair with cheap, imported crap whose dollar price tag doesn’t even begin to cover its environmental and social costs. Dollar stores perpetuate just about every social and environmental crime you can think of. And lest you think they only discriminate against developing nations, they rip off US employees, too.
I’ve all but stopped going, because when I do, there’s nothing I can buy responsibly. Anything I buy would be an exception to my own ethical convictions, which I hope are worth more than $1. What I’ve learned about mindful consumption has cost me that part of my childhood. I feel sad about its loss, even though there is no rational reason to hang on to it. (No one ever claimed that putting rationality and environmental responsibility in front of family tradition, cultural acceptance, and instant gratification was, well, fun.) But I also see my own reluctance to give dollar stores up entirely and wonder how rationality on its own could ever be strong or compelling enough to change culture, tradition, or emotional perception in mass.
Being cheap and going green can be fully compatible, but only if you take the DIY/reduction routes. Dollar stores? Not so much. What do you think think? Do you have a history with dollar stores, too?