On the square in Bentonville, way up in the northwest corner of the state, is Walton's Five and Ten Cent Store. That's it in the picture, the red and white building second from the corner.

So what? Well, it was the first Wal-Mart. How ya like them apples?

Today it's the Wal-Mart Visitors' Center, a museum dedicated half to the Walton family and half to the history of the most successful retail venture ever ever ever.

Here are the pertinent elements of the story of the founding of a business empire: Sam and the Mrs., living in Newport in postwar northeast Arkansas, leased a Ben Franklin discount store franchise. By the end of the term of the lease, they had turned the franchise into the most profitable Ben Franklin store in the nation. Under those conditions, the owner of the franchise would have been crazy to lease the store out again. Why should he let somebody else turn the crank on his money machine? So he decided to take the store over and run it himself. Bye, Sam, and thanks for being a pal.

Sam looked for another store to lease, and found the one in the top picture. This store, too, became a going concern. He added stores and got members of his (large) family to help in running them. The rest is history.

If you want to learn about that history in greater detail, this is where you go. This is the inside, where you can follow the development of Wal-Mart as an international retail phenomenon. Exhibits include taped interviews with people who were part of Sam's fledgling enterprise. Some of the stories concerning early promotions are pretty amusing. There are samplings of merchandise from the stores from almost a half-century ago, including one of those big round outdoor thermometers which a customer returned because it wouldn't keep the correct time.

There's also a gift shop. Anybody surprised by that?

There are two exhibits which I found of particular interest. They are the first and last offices of Sam Walton. Here's a picture of a reconstruction of the first. It's just a plain wooden desk, a phone and a chair. There's a pegboard on the wall upon which carbon copies of reciepts and bills are speared. That was the accounting system. The phone number was 96. That's not extension 96, mind you. The whole phone number was 96.

A few feet away is Sam Walton's final office, disassembled, transported from his corporate headquarters and rebuilt here, preserved exactly as it was on the day he passed away. The contrast to the original office is striking, of course, but the most interesting thing to me was the bookcase. There are maybe a couple of hundred books in the office, and as you read the titles printed on the spines, you start to feel like you know the guy. Maybe that's a psychological artifact, though. After all, it's just a feeling of familiarity more than actual familiarity. Whatever the case, the bookshelf created that feeling moreso than did the videotaped interviews or the enshrined pickup truck, pictured here.


In the neighborhood: Dinosaur Sculpture for Sale

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