Your notes please: How to get detained at Walmart

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This week looms Black Friday, a bizarre ritual in which people inexplicably camp out all night in front of department stores like Walmart and get jacked up on 2-liter bottles of Coke with the very real possibility that, at opening, they could be cudgeled or clawed, bitten or beaten as they rush the shelves for the last box of LEGO Mindstorms.

Walmart: There’s a new one on Martin Luther King Parkway in Durham where a lush swath of trees used to be. But the fact that Walmart routinely gorges on tracts of green space is not the only reason I refuse to shop there. Nor is it the chain’s anti-union stance or dubious labor practices. Those are all excellent rationales for boycotting Walmart, but for me, it’s more personal. I was, in effect, held hostage at Walmart. And not by an angry Tickle Me Elmo fan, but by Walmart.

I often tell this true story to journalism classes as a way of demonstrating how a small assignment such as reporting on the price of school supplies can turn into combat.

In August 1995, I was a new general assignment reporter with a daily newspaper in Indiana. General assignment reporters often get a) the table scraps that fall off the beat reporters’ plates or b) the journalistic equivalent of junk food: shopping stories, for example.

My assignment was to write an article about where to buy the cheapest school supplies. So after visiting various big-box stores such as Target, where I conducted my reporting without incident, my next stop was Walmart. There I dutifully noted the cost of plain brown pencils versus sparkly pencils with designer erasers, different brands of paint sets, lunch boxes—you know, the stuff of Pulitzer dreams.

As I was writing the prices in my notebook, a Walmart associate sauntered up to me and asked what I was doing. I identified myself as a reporter and told him. About five minutes later, a blond woman dressed in a black shirt and pants wearing a black Walkie-Talkie on her hip approached me, in retrospect, somewhat aggressively, and asked the same question. I gave her the same answer.

“You’ll have to give me your notes,” the woman curtly replied.
“What? Why?”
“Walmart doesn’t allow people to write down prices.”
“Where is that policy posted?” I said, looking around the store.
“It’s not,” she blurted, apparently taken aback that someone would actually ask to see the policy. “But you need to give me your notes.”

My well-honed suspicion and contempt for authority figures kicked in. Plus, I knew a journalist’s notes were sacred. She would have to pry my notebook—like the hunting rifles Walmart sold at the time—from my cold, dead fingers.

“I’m not going to give you my notes,” I replied snottily.
“Then you can’t leave the store,” she said.
“Well then I’m going to be here for a very long time.”

I envisioned a lifetime of reclining on the chaise lounges in the garden center, subsisting on goldfish crackers and Capri Sun and reading Danielle Steel novels. Instead, after about 10 minutes, at which point the Woman in Black had escorted me to a holding area on the main floor, I told her to call my editor (this was before cell phones). After much haggling—Would Walmart forcibly seize my notes? What were the notes' secret contents? Someone in the newsroom, I later learned, debated calling the police—the Woman in Black begrudgingly released me.

I kept my notes. But since it was a daily paper, not an alternative newsweekly, the story contained no mention of my detention, just that Target had really cheap pencils.

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