Merchant's Choice

We certainly have gotten turned around. Once upon a time a store would get in trouble for having “adult” magazines on its shelves. Today stores are criticized for being old-fashioned culture cops if they choose not to sell such magazines — or shield the covers in the checkout aisles.

I don't recall any local, state or federal law that requires stores to sell every magazine under the sun. A store certainly isn't required to sell offensive material. But Wal-Mart has upset some proponents of free expression by deciding not to sell certain men's magazines. The magazines in question are adult at best, pornographic at worst.

Wal-Mart also decided to put shields over the covers of four women's magazines that some of its patrons found offensive. The women's magazines are billed as “fashion and lifestyle” offerings. In fact, their most recent covers all included headlines to which no Christian parents would want to expose their children. I'd go into more detail, but I'm confident more detail would be offensive to the readers of the Register.

People who have common sense and are accompanied by their children while shopping are pleased by Wal-Mart's decision. People who think they are sophisticated, modern and protectors of free expression are upset. “How dare Wal-Mart decide what is appropriate for its customers to see,” they exclaim.

Wal-Mart and every other store make decisions every day about what to put on their shelves. Those decisions are based on a combination of what sells, market studies, gut feelings and the opinions of high-priced consultants.

I'm a regular shopper at Wal-Mart because my local store sells numerous things I use.

For example, when it comes to fishing (my chosen avocation), I guess I'm a Wal-Mart kind of guy. I use spinning and bait-casting equipment in pursuit of bass, cat-fish, walleye and pike. That's the sort of stuff Wal-Mart sells in the fishing aisle. They even have live worms and stink bait. There isn't much for the trout-seeking fly fisherman; perhaps the store has made a cultural statement in what type of fishermen it serves.

On the other hand, I have a job where I often must wear a business suit. Wal-Mart doesn't sell business suits. Should I protest? Is the store depriving me of sartorial splendor? No, it is just that when it comes to work clothes, I guess I'm not such a Wal-Mart kind of guy, although I do get underwear and jeans there.

The same store that is covering magazines also sells clothing for young women that I deem inappropriate for my daughter. Maybe it is a bonanza for makers of jeans and knit tops that they don't have to use much material these days. Problem is, the product often doesn't adequately cover the subject. I suppose if conservative dressers like me raised a stink we might get the store to carry more tops that cover belly buttons; maybe that would anger the proponents of free-belly-button expression.

At my local Wal-Mart, the music depar tment has more country/western than jazz (my style). I don't buy many CDs at Wal-Mart. But I don't consider it a constitutional free-speech issue that the average Wal-Mart shopper and I differ in musical taste.

Wal-Mart or any other store has the right to do its best to meet the needs of its customers. It would be wonder ful if stores felt the need to offer products that aspire to some sor t of moral goodness — wholesome publications, modest clothing, peaceful/educational toys and uplifting music. Getting some sleazy magazines off the counter is a good start.

Jim Fair writes from Chicago.

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