Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America's Richest Man

Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America's Richest Man

Book Information

Viking, 2011

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"I'm going to rent myself a house in the shade of the freeway I'm going to pack my lunch in the morning and go to work each day. And when the evening rolls around I'll go on home and lay my body down. And when the morning light comes streaming in I'll get up and do it again. Amen"
-- Jackson Browne, "The Pretender"

"By his own admission, he relentlessly copied every good idea he could find. He would lease a building so that someone else couldn't. He raided rivals' top talent and hounded suppliers to lower their prices. He was so focused on cutting prices for customers and improving sales that he sometimes ignored other business considerations, like paying clerks well or promoting women and minorities. He shrugged off criticism that his big discount stores were destroying downtowns and demolishing local retailers in small communities. Having started as a small-town retailer himself, he saw his job as taking care of customers; other retailers could fend for themselves."

The waves of various feelings that passed through me as I read MR. SAM made this biography-of-a-dead-billionaire quite an interesting experience.

For part of me, there is the nostalgia factor. In 1962, when Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in Rogers, Arkansas, I was a seven year-old growing up in suburban Long Island. It was such a different world. This was back when the only news on television was the nightly news, and it often featured a lot of people being beaten for wanting Civil Rights. This was back when being raised Catholic meant not eating meat on Friday, and when you did eat meat, there was a neighborhood butcher with sawdust on the floor. Along that same row of stores on Old Country Road in Plainview was a drug store where I'd buy baseball cards and balsa gliders and Pinky balls. On Friday nights we'd ride in our family's '52 Buick down to Hicksville Road and wander through the 400 stalls at the Nassau Farmer's Market.

I had no knowledge back then of Kmart or Target or Woolco, all of which also opened their first discount stores in 1962. Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of all these openings.

For part of me, there was surprise. I was prepared to feel great anger toward Sam Walton, this guy who -- just like the Founding Fathers -- didn't give much thought to equal opportunity. It sounds like getting to run a Walmart store was sort of like running for President: something you didn't consider doing back then if you weren't white, male, and Christian. (Interestingly, the first woman to finally serve on the Walmart Board of Directors was the same woman who has so far come closest to becoming the first female President.)

But I didn't come away from the book hating Sam Walton. He was no more idiotic in his beliefs than my own father was, and Mr. Sam was way less horrifying than are so many people today -- male and female -- who are either running businesses or running for President. Walton didn't seem to have had any problem with his company's seeking in the mid-1990s to begin forcing its worldwide suppliers to not employ children for pennies per day or maintain unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. (Then again, by that point in time, Mr. Sam was dead.)

I don't hate Sam Walton for exploiting so many people as he made billions of dollars, virtually none of which he gave away to make the world better. This guy was no Andrew Carnegie. From what I take away, Sam Walton was...a good ol' boy. But, then again, all of us Boomers grew up knowing lots of guys who thought just like he did.

For part of me, there is all of the great information with which author Karen Blumenthal fills another of her outstanding nonfiction books for young people. Besides hearing about retail businesses that I haven't thought about in decades, there are wonderful page-long side pieces about the inventing of shopping carts; about Sam Walton's favorite hunting dog; and about the time Mr. Sam blew it by being just too far ahead of the curve. There are also reappearing decade-by-decade snapshots revealing the changing trends in how Americans spent their money.

I also really appreciate how, in her Notes, Ms. Blumenthal cites the instances where "details may be in dispute."

What is indisputable is how big this corporation has become:

"Today... Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. operates in more than fifteen countries and employs more than two million people, including well over one million in the United States. Just about two of every three Americans will shop at one of its stores...

"Its annual sales of more than $400 billion make it the largest company in America and the largest retailer in the world, ringing up more than $1.1 billion every day, almost $800,000 every single minute."

Given these facts, there is plenty of reason for young people to learn about the intriguing life and times of Mr. Sam and the empire he founded.

Recommended by Richie Partington, MLIS, California
Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com_ (

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