OPINION | Marysville: Small Town USA or Mall-Town USA?

In a replay of Marysville’s decision of a few years ago, Monroe’s city council voted 6-1 in favor of a new Walmart. Promises of jobs, low prices and an extensive inventory tipped the balance as at 2,970 other Walmart projects from sea to shining sea. It was no-contest. Sam Walton’s site-securers came armed with sufficient legal precedent to discourage the city’s council from bucking their assault.

There are real reasons for shopping at Walmart. Blue-light specials, pricing local shops can’t match, parking for your RV and 24 hour service. And there is equal reason for shopping elsewhere, such as Walmart’s questionable personnel policies, goods drawn from foreign sweatshops and profits siphoned off to the Walton treasury. On the plus side, Walmart merchandising is predictable. If you’re familiar with one you can navigate them all. They’re not unique, one from the other.

I settled in Marysville because of its poetic uniqueness. Every bygone shop, restaurant and business oozed character. Ron’s Hamburgers, the Blacksmith Shop, Davis Stationery, Bloom’s Apparel, Marysville Fuel and Lumber, The B&M, The Bluebird Café, Richards Floral, Delta Sales, Turk Optometry, Thompson Meats, Armar Store, Strand Fuel, Marysville Feed & Seed, Marysville Furniture, Whitey’s Shell, The Thunderbird Drive-In, The Barrel, The (original) Village Restaurant. Alas.

Each place of business bore its proprietor’s personal stamp and was as different as we are, one from the other. Marysville had its own feel, flavor, aroma and sometimes drama. The differences set Marysville apart from Arlington, Snohomish, or Monroe or for that matter, any other town of its size in the state. We liked our uniqueness.

Bud Solvberg of Marysville Furniture trucked the sofa I admired to my home so I could see if I really wanted it. Jack Bartlett helped me monkey-wrench hardware parts into DIYS solutions. Ron Johnson’s crew at Ron’s Hamburgers tossed and slammed coffee and breakfasts in front of customers in YouTube worthy performances. Visitors to Dr. Turk’s optometry office usually interrupted his fly-tying. Every business, it seemed was defined by the character of its staff.

Waitresses spent whole careers in the same eateries. When you opened the door to a business, you saw faces you expected. You knew proprietors and they knew you in a web of friendship and occasional animosity that formed the social fabric that was Marysville. Every trip downtown confirmed that Marysville was my homey home-town.

The annual Strawberry Festival drew its theme from extensive berry fields that carpeted land between 88th and Smokey Point. Strawberry picking was how Marysville kids earned spending money, the lucky ones belly-down on picking machines that inched through the fields, the less lucky hunkered down pushing trays along. Berry farming, picking and processing was an important part of Marysville’s economy and culture.

Marysville was a fisherman’s town. There were few residential blocks that weren’t home to a gill-net or seiner fisherman. The rest were into sports-fishing. Off season, Geddes Marine’s floats were lined with working boats and more Marysville boats tied up in Everett to take advantage of net-lockers, dockside fueling and drive-up access to boats. From the 1950’s on, recreational boaters competed for top-horsepower which led to annual races on the slough.

Then something happened that eroded at Marysville’s uniqueness. It came on softly, a bit at a time. If I could put a name to it, it would be absentee or remote ownership. We still have home-owned enterprises but the majority of our dollars are now spent in corporate franchises or big-box stores that lack the flavor of what was once Marysville. Staples, Rite-Aid, Burger King, Home Depot, Walmart, Schucks, McDonalds, Albertson’s, Penneys, Seattle Outlets.

Out-of-town operators offer lower prices and bigger inventories than the home-owned shops of yesteryear, and that’s good. They also export profits to corporate headquarters while offering marketing formulas and personnel policies dreamed up in corporate board rooms. Their employees are cogs in the machine, not family. When welcoming out-of-town corporate retailers, towns like Marysville and Monroe reap not only advantages, but a bundle of slow-blooming problems. At best, cozying up to the giants amounts to a Faustian bargain.

Mall by mall, corporate America is homogenizing the nation. One nation indivisible? More like one nation indistinguishable which makes it difficult for Marysville to achieve or hold an identity. The timely question for any town is, just how much local identity should be conceded to corporate outsiders?

Marysville’s strawberry-identity is colorful and historic though not too relevant today. Drawing identity from how the surrounding world sees us—a bedroom community — might not be as flattering as we’d like. Towns elsewhere like to bill themselves as The Gateway to something interesting, The Home of someone famous. Or like Gilroy, California—Garlic Capitol of the United States. Atkins, Arkansas’ grasp on fame is “Home of the Fried Dill Pickle.”

Marysville is not so bland that corporate intrusion should be allowed to homogenize and define it. Strawberries tell where we’ve been, which is important. What we’ve become is important, too, but most important is identifying, nurturing and capitalizing on dynamics that impel us into the future.

Comments may be sent to rgraef@frontier.com.

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