by Kris Kendall
It’s just past 8 on a Wednesday night, May 11, and at the newly opened Dollar Tree location in Rainier Beach, business is brisk.
The store, located at 9000 Rainier Ave S., takes up about a third of the space that once housed Saar’s Marketplace. Next door, the remaining shell of Saar’s boasts boarded-up windows and a massive “For Lease” sign. The Rite-Aid in the corner of this business complex continues to buzz with customers.
Inside Dollar Tree, the brightly lit, clean aisles are fully stocked with a variety of consumer durables. And walking those aisles is a glorious cross-section of Rainier Beach residents, nearly all of them carrying a shopping basket or pushing a cart brimming with products. This Dollar Tree, listed on their corporate website as “Store #6400,” has the undeniable newness of a recently remodeled and cleaned-up retail space.
When Saar’s closed abruptly this past October, news of the Dollar Tree’s impending arrival traveled so fast, that the conversation about Saar’s became intertwined with the conversation about the Dollar Tree, and what such a store means to Rainier Beach.
But that debate is silenced the moment any of us sets foot inside the Dollar Tree. Just beyond the automatic door on this warm night, shoppers are too busy to consider the economic and social impact of the Dollar Tree because we’re all here for the trademarked promise of the Dollar Tree sign: “Everything’s $1.”
What does that 100 pennies (plus tax on non-food items) get you? A fair deal if you shop smart. One of the main complaints about Dollar Tree’s arrival was that the only food they sell is junk food, essentially poison. (Never mind the fast food stops within walking distance that will fill our stomachs for cheap, but offer the long-term investment dividend of bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, and increased risk of diabetes.)
Stroll through the frozen food section and you’ll see pre-fab convenience foods—hello, Hot Pockets. But alongside those terrors were frozen vegetables and fruit. Not fresh, but a thrifty shopper could do worse. Likewise, the other food lanes put the healthy (name-brand pasta, rice, canned beans) next to the questionable (chips, candy, jerky) and, like all other grocery sellers, lets the consumers choose their fate.
If you have limited finances and need to outfit your living space with things we all use, Dollar Tree delivers. Cleaning supplies and basic household goods take up a fair portion of the stock. Some of those products, like the food, were recognizable brand names, while others bore the markers of what advertisers call “off-brand” products.
In the three aisles full of party gear, toys, and seasonal goods, Dollar Tree’s offerings nearly vibrate with the true yin and yang of the store. Arts and crafts materials, basic school supplies and provisions to put together a birthday party—what parent wouldn’t dive in with gusto? But the flipside of this section is that it sums up the one truly valid complaint against Dollar Tree: Many of the items for sale in this part of the store flash like a neon sign reading “future landfill fodder.”
Yes, so is your new mobile phone, your flat-screen TV, the mattress pad that helps you squeeze a few more years’ use out of your bed. Such is the price of life in our market-driven economy. Is a dollar spent on a plastic squirt gun that will be demolished before Labor Day more offensive than the dollar that buys an MP3 simply because the carbon footprint of the former is more obvious and immediate than that of the latter?
Thinking locally, is a Dollar Tree the best Rainier Beach can do? Of course not. We can and should strive to bring a variety of retail business to the south end, both locally owned and strategically corporate. But to deny the value of this store—not the literal value, but the fact that it’s here—is to deny that thriving stores in the neighborhood are far more desirable than empty spaces.
The Dollar Tree brought retail jobs to Rainier Beach, and makes a few necessities of modern life a little more accessible to shoppers on a tight budget. It’s tough to argue against that.
Kris Kendall lives in Rainier Beach. He spent $2.10 at Dollar Tree on an 8.5-ounce bag of Home Style Select Yellow Round Tortilla Chips (crunchy fresh, but too salty) and kitchen clips shaped like alligators.