It’s possible that as e-commerce companies continue to encroach on brick-and-mortar stores, they will support communities in the same way that other small businesses traditionally have. Amazon pointed out that it has sponsored, among other events, holiday festivals in Jeffersonville, Kentucky, a Pride parade in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a summer reading program in San Antonio. But going to Amazon for donations is fundamentally different from walking into a store and asking the owner, based on a personal relationship, for support.
For the residents of Greenfield in particular, the decline of small businesses is hard to bear because the town has a history of resisting national companies that have tried to come in and set up shop. The first anti-Walmart battle, in the mid-1990s, was prompted after the town council rezoned a plot of land, thus allowing a developer to build a Walmart. Norman, the Sprawl Buster, led a ballot initiative to reverse that zoning decision, and his narrow win surprised just about everybody in Greenfield, including him. “We really tried to play up the idea that Greenfield had a lot to lose,” he told me. “Our slogan was, ‘You can buy cheap underwear at Walmart, but you can’t buy small-town quality of life anywhere.’”
A decade later, when a developer again tried to put a Walmart outside of town, Norman fought it because the new site was on a wetland. Eventually, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection forbade construction. Then, in 2011, when the developer reconfigured the site and won a planning board’s permission to build, Norman found plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against the developer that is still winding its way through court. He drove me by both sites when I was in town, and both are still tree-filled fields, rather than the big stores developers had envisioned.
Lisa Cocco, the owner of Opus, a Main Street boutique selling small gifts like jewelry, pottery, and wind chimes that has been around for 28 years, said that when she thought Walmart was coming to Greenfield, she opened a second store in another town because she didn’t think her original location could withstand the retailer’s presence. The Walmart didn’t come, so she stayed open in Greenfield. Now, she’s not sure if she can weather the switch to e-commerce. She told me customers come in and browse, find something they like, and compare prices online when she’s standing right there. “It’s seriously hurting business,” she said. “I’m extremely discouraged.”
In some ways, Greenfield’s lack of big-box stores might have accelerated residents’ transition to e-commerce. While there are shops downtown, those don’t offer the selection of a Walmart or Target. And since the only big stores are a 30-minute drive away, many in Greenfield have started buying off Amazon instead. “There are only a certain number of things you can get downtown,” Danielle Jenczyk, a 37-year-old Greenfield resident told me. Jencyzk told me she shops on Amazon for just about everything, since she gets free shipping through her Prime subscription and because she can look at product reviews before she buys anything.