BIG-BOX SWINDLE: THE TRUE COST OF MEGA-RETAILERS AND THE FIGHT FOR AMERICA'S INDEPENDENT BUSINESSES, by Stacy Mitchell, Beacon, 318 pages, $24.95.

In the business/consumer world, few things are more fun to talk about than the festering big-box problem. Are you worried about the Wal-Mart or Home Depot moving in across the street — or happy because you will have everything you need close at hand?

In this deeply-researched study, Stacy Mitchell seems to have thought of everything. She effectively traces how many communities and independent businesses are in constant debate with the big-box crowd — then she shows how dramatic the growth has been for Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco and Staples — and a corresponding burst of smaller ones including Starbucks, Olive Garden, Blockbuster and Old Navy.

Then she tells the more interesting story of how more than 200 communities have successfully beat down the big-boxes that were about to nestle into their strip malls — and this was done by organizations of ordinary citizens.

It's true that Wal-Mart has tried some clever tricks — in Decorah, Iowa, Wal-Mart built a superstore in the floodplain of a local river even though the approval of the project was being contested. Eventually, it was declared to be illegal. By then the building was complete — Wal-Mart and the city sat down and made a deal.

In a case in Central Point, Ore., Wal-Mart spent $6 million for a land site after the city denied the store a permit. The big boys sometimes threaten local officials with a lawsuit if they vote down their proposal, according to the author. Small towns especially avoid protracted legal battles because they're so costly.

But the good news is that when a big-box was planned for Burnside, a suburb of Portland, Ore., local business owners got on the horn and garnered enough support to move mountains. A coalition was formed consisting of eight neighborhood associations, numerous residents and more than 100 local business owners.

People turned out in droves at public hearings and became so noisy that the city's leaders backed down. The Portland Development Corporation re-submitted their proposals, this time with mixed residential and small business spaces — and no big-box stores.

Similarly, when Home Depot started planning a store in Frisco, Colo., the community stood up early, researched the situation and by time the matter came up for a vote, the citizens were well-informed. They voted the store down by 57 to 43 percent. In the meantime, Home Depot had spent $30,000 on advertising, promising to give the town a new ball field.

Communities have passed a number of laws that hopefully will protect them against more huge companies moving in and bulldozing their way to dominance.

This is a well-written and informative book.


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