HEARNE, TEX. -- The bustling Wal-Mart shows few signs that it is doomed. Notices taped to the front doors warn that layaways no longer will be offered.
William and Bonnie Briggs, who have a microwave oven in their cart, say that after the 10-year-old store closes next week, they'll have to drive from their home north of Hearne to the nearest affordable shopping, 20 miles south in Bryan.
"If you go to a small retailer, you'll pay three times as much," especially for children's clothes, said William Briggs, a Hearne carpenter.
Since the birth of Sam Walton's empire 28 years ago, thousands of small businesses in hundreds of mostly rural towns have quaked at news that the discount chain was moving in. Hearne is one of only a handful of such towns to face the prospect of losing its Wal-Mart.
"It puts something of a stigma on the community," said Dave Cunningham, a real estate agent and president of the Hearne Area Chamber of Commerce. "If they had made this decision the first year they were in operation, we'd still have a vital downtown... . It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
"It's just kind of sad. They breeze into town and suck up all the business, then with all the businesses gone, they pick up and leave," said Bart Lockhardt, who runs a store his father started 30 years ago.
A small hospital shut its doors in 1988, and residents are hard-pressed to choose which closing hurts more.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's fastest-growing retailer, plans to open 175 new stores by the end of the year. The 1,485-store chain has 231 stores in Texas, more than in any other state. But Wal-Mart officials say the Hearne store has not turned a profit since it has been here.
At Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., spokesman Don Shinkle said the company tried several strategies at the 46,000-square-foot store.
"We have made super-conscientious efforts to make the Hearne store profitable," he said. "Any other chain would have closed the store long before its 10th anniversary... . We have an obligation to our stockholders."
Still, the discount chain's decision to pull out of this central Texas town of about 5,600 residents came as a shock -- even to employees. Although rumors of the closing had circulated for weeks, Wal-Mart had begun some overdue renovations. Besides, no one in town had heard of a Wal-Mart closing before, although a handful have.
Now, residents are as irked to see the mega-retailer depart as some were afraid of its arrival. They complain that Wal-Mart, after having pushed out perhaps a dozen other stores, is the only place left in town that sells socks.
"Poor Wal-Mart can't win either way they go," said Dennis Telzrow, a retail analyst at the Dallas office of Eppler, Guerin & Turner, an investment firm. "The people are complaining that they're giving them better values and driving the mom-and-pop stores out, and now they're complaining because they're leaving."
Unlike the strip of highway that runs by the discount shopping mecca and the Dairy Queen on the south side, Hearne's anemic downtown is dotted with empty and boarded storefronts. Next to Lockhardt's Appliance and Furniture is a liquidator's auction house.
Hearne has no bowling alleys, movie theaters or game rooms. The newly renovated art deco Dixie Cafe does a brisk lunchtime business, as does the video rental store, but people often drive to Bryan for entertainment. Wal-Mart, many say, is THE meeting place.
"I don't know of a single person in Hearne that doesn't shop at Wal-Mart," said Sue Timmons, who manages the Hearne Area Chamber of Commerce. Later in the day, Timmons was spotted with her son buying dog food, tissues and a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" video. "See? I told you," she said.
Hearne resident Camella Corona said the town's older residents are frustrated. "People are devastated. Here I'm in my sixties, and I know I don't jump into the car and drive to Bryan to buy a yard of material to make a quilt," said Corona, who was wearing a blouse and pants she bought at Wal-Mart.
"There's not another place to buy a spool of thread, or house shoes for the elderly. You can't just be going up and down the highway when you've given up driving," she said.
But not everyone is disappointed to see Wal-Mart go.
"It's not going to hurt our business. That's for sure," said Joe Wilson, co-owner of Wilson Rexall Drug downtown, who was born and raised in Hearne.
His store's nonprescription sales fell off after Wal-Mart came to town, until Wilson started offering discounts for cash -- 10 percent on pharmaceuticals and 20 percent on other merchandise. "I don't want to be Simon Legree or anything like that, but these discount stores are pretty cutthroat, and I've never been an admirer of 'em," he said.
Wal-Mart officials maintain that any store with good service and high quality can successfully compete with the discount chain. But virtually any shopper in Hearne can tick off some of the stores that have left since Wal-Mart arrived: Perry Drug Store, Bill's Dollar Store, J.B. White.
Wal-Mart is Hearne's third-biggest employer, after a company that repairs railroad tank cars and another that makes bath fixtures. Its 90 employees represent a payroll of as much as $1 million. The store accounts directly for $250,000 of the city's current $5.4 million budget, mainly in utility fees and sales taxes. Its loss, city officials say, will be significant.
Shinkle, the Wal-Mart spokesman, blamed "retail leakage" -- shoppers taking their dollars to Bryan and College Station when they go to the movies or restaurants.
But Hearne City Manager Floyd T. Hafley is among many in town who haven't accepted the decision as final. They hope that some combination of sweet talk and tax incentives might soften hearts in Bentonville.
"There was no contact with City Hall by any member of the Wal-Mart team or local management," Hafley said. "We feel like they don't know us as part of their team. We're just a name on their map to them, and we'd like to change that."
The city has started a letter-writing campaign to Wal-Mart Chairman Sam Walton, and Wal-Mart has tentatively agreed to sit down and discuss the situation -- a courtesy that city officials say is long overdue.
"We want them to look us in the eye and tell us their bottom line isn't good enough," Hafley said. "I personally don't believe that... . Every time I pass, I see the parking lot full of people."
Wal-Mart has offered to transfer any employee who asks. The nearest Wal-Mart stores -- as shoppers are well aware -- are 20 miles southeast in Bryan, 30 miles southwest in Rockdale and 40 miles northwest in Marlin.
Sales clerk Kathy Jackson, 32, restocking dart boards, said she works up to 30 hours a week to support herself and her father. Jackson earns $4 an hour with no benefits, and she's not sure whether the commute would be worth it if she were to accept a transfer. "I really haven't made up my mind yet. The reality of it hasn't hit."
At the store, Manager Doug Lee greeted customers by name and tactfully accepted wishes that the company reverse its decision to close the store. Not all the news is bad for Hearne, he said.
"I see positive things for the community. They'll have the opportunity to flourish. Some entrepreneurs can come in," he said. "They survived without us for many, many years... . That's the American way. If there's a need, somebody'll fill the need."
But downtown at Hoyt's Pharmacy, Archer Hoyt said it won't be that easy. "I'm hoping to see variety stores come back or some existing businesses expand, but money's so tight it's hard to get financing," he said.
Greg Taylor, an economic development expert at Texas A&M University, says Wal-Mart's success in rural America has had as much impact as the growth of the double-income family and the aging of small-town populations.
But its departure should be treated like the loss of any other major employer. Hearne residents should "take a good strong look at how their local economy has changed over the past few years," he says. "Sounds like an opportunity in the making to me."