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Alex Beam

Wal-Mart and the Battle of Vermont

There is a funny musical playing in Manhattan called "Walmartopia." The critics hated it, but I liked it, not so much for its generic Wal-Mart bashing - that's like throwing strikes to Andre the Giant - but for its hilarious depiction of Vermont as an island of resistance to the Bentonville, Ark.-based behemoth.

Half the play is set in 2037, when only armed guerrillas from Vermont, led by dictators Ben and Jerry, are opposing the Wal-Martification of the United States. Instead of teaching children to watch television at School-Mart, a rebellious Vermont teacher instructs his charges how to make puppets, and so on.

That's quite a compliment for the Green Mountain State, where enviro types and citizens' groups have been opposing Bentonville's big box schemes for well over a decade. But here's the rub: Wal-Mart loves Vermont! Or at least it loves those Green Mountain greenbacks. Why else would it keep coming back?

The first shots in the Battle of Vermont were fired back in 1993, when Wal-Mart tried to site a hideous, 100,000-square-foot box in St. Albans. At the time, Vermont was the only state in the union without a Wal-Mart, and for a while it preserved its retail virginity. The Vermont Supreme Court nixed the St. Albans location, prompting Howard Dean, the governor at the time, to suggest that Wal-Mart place stores in flagging New England downtowns, rather than in suburban megamalls.

So it did. Wal-Mart moved into a vacant Woolworth store in Bennington, and then built smallish stores on similarly vacated sites in Rutland and Berlin. It got its first coveted big box store off of Interstate 89 in Williston, "the one that got away," according to Stephen Holmes of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Holmes, who allows that the Wal-Mart permitting "process has been fairly contentious," points out that Wal-Mart loves to site stores in neighboring New Hampshire, where development regulations are more lax. "They have a strategy of circling Vermont," he says.

Buoyed by the appearance of the Republican governor who succeeded Dean, Wal-Mart has re-applied to build an even bigger store at the rejected St. Albans site, and has also proposed a store for Derby, near the Canadian border. I am assuming that is to cash in on the weak American dollar. In case the US dollar rebounds, Wal-Mart has plenty of stores across the border in Quebec. That's called a currency hedge straddle.

"Walmartopia" uses Wal-Mart uniforms and logos copiously. A couple of Wal-Mart lawyers could close the play down on their lunch break if they chose, or at least give the Supreme Court's recent pro-parody rulings a run for their money. But Wal-Mart has kept its powder dry, choosing merely to issue a statement calling the play "a futuristic musical not based in fact." It wouldn't want to alienate Vermont, after all!

Free plug

There is some very nice writing in "Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life," a collection of movie reviews originally published in the Boston Review by Dr. Alan Stone of the Harvard Law School. (As opposed to Alan Stone, Harvard's top PR guy.) Stone writes so gracefully that he came within a hair's breadth of convincing me that I might enjoy Indian director Deepa Mehta's "Water," which I know I would not.

The book includes a good, short essay on Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V," and also has a fascinating take on the unpardonable vanity production about the Cuban missile crisis, "Thirteen Days." Stone played football at Harvard with both Bobby Kennedy and Kenny O'Donnell, two of the movie's protagonists, and he is very clear-eyed about the strengths and weaknesses of both men.

Stone is the subject of in a famous Harvard anecdote. He trained as a psychiatrist, and supposedly Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna urged him to switch to law, because all the good minds gravitated to jurisprudence. Stone says the story is apocryphal. He did consult with Anna Freud before taking his post at the law school, he says, and she encouraged him to embark on interdisciplinary scholarship, as she herself had. But as for pumping up the law at the expense of medicine, "she never said it."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is

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