One store, many views; Is another Walmart good or bad for York County?

A book called The Wal-Mart Effect sits prominently on a table next to the Rev. Jim Moss' desk.

It's the most unusual sight in an otherwise typical preacher's office filled with family pictures, stacks of paperwork and blue hymnals. But the issues explored in the book are about to take on a big role in Moss' ministry at Tirzah Presbyterian Church.

The 36-year-old pastor hopes to push his flock to think more about the retail giant's impact on their lives and what the arrival of a Walmart means for this rural section of York County.

Tucked away on two-lane Tirzah Road, the church sits amid horse pastures and woods in a place where many families have lived for generations. Its 150 members include business owners, retired farmers, nurses and a veterinarian.

Suburbia is creeping closer. A Walmart Supercenter opens this week two miles east on S.C. 161, the latest addition to the wave of development transforming York County's sleepy farming communities into outer Charlotte suburbs.

For Moss, the new store brings a teachable moment.

"When I go to Walmart and buy a pair of jeans, do I think about more than just how much it costs?" Moss asked. "Do I think about the employees in the store, what their experience is? The person who made the jeans?"

These are familiar questions in the long-running debate over Walmart. The company has been accused of paying low wages, importing cheap goods from China and restricting health insurance to employees.

Walmart defends its practices and says it provides a good work experience for its employees while saving consumers $2,500 a year per family.

"It's not just about having a good job, it's about career opportunities, said Amy Wyatt-Moore, a Walmart spokeswoman. "A majority of our managers started out as hourly associates. They have the opportunity to build careers within the company."

The Walmart Supercenter that opens Wednesday near Newport will employ 375 workers. That's in a county with a 14.6 percent unemployment rate in June, more than double the previous June.

As for employee benefits, the company says a recent survey found that 92.7 percent of Walmart associates reported having some form of health coverage, either through Walmart or another source. The company offers health insurance and other benefits to both its full- and part-time workers, Wyatt-Moore said.

But that's done little to quell the debate over the retailer.

Into the debate steps a quiet-natured pastor with a passion for social justice. It's been this way since high school, when Moss took mission trips to Mexico and West Virginia and witnessed families living in extreme poverty.

After majoring in music at Davidson College, Moss decided to follow his father into the ministry. Robert Moss led churches in the Carolinas and Georgia over a 40-year career and now lives in Rock Hill.

The younger Moss stresses that his goal is not to tell anyone what to believe. He wants his congregants to consider how their lifestyles reflect the Christian values of peace and fairness.

Too many Americans, he says, get swept up in the consumer culture without realizing it. Walmart shouldn't be the only focus, but it's the world's biggest retailer and the church's newest neighbor.

"They didn't start the trends, and they're not the only ones doing these things, Moss said. "They have an incredible influence on how everybody else does things, just because they're so large."

Many in the pews aren't accustomed to the message, or at least how Moss frames it. But they're fond of the young pastor, who arrived a little more than a year ago from a church in the tiny town of Honea Path, near Anderson.

"He's trying to make all of us aware of how we spend our money," said Margie McCarter, a church member for 63 years. "He works hard on presenting the situation so all of our members can understand. He doesn't speak above the people."

What's next?

Critics say the arrival of a Walmart spells doom for mom and pop businesses whose prices are undercut. Experts disagree on whether the impact is real or imagined.

The fears are often unfounded, Wyatt-Moore said.

"We think it s just the opposite. A lot of businesses spring up at our stores," she said, citing the opportunity for strong foot traffic generated by the store. "A Walmart store brings a lot of people into an area to shop that wouldn't otherwise be in that area of town."

On a hot afternoon last week, Moss drove around Newport, visiting with store owners and listening to their opinions. Some of the answers surprised him.

"I'm counting the days," said Linda Price, owner of the Pet Village store on S.C. 161.

As puppies barked in the next room and goldfish swam in tanks behind her, Price explained her confidence. Customers value the expertise and personal attention, she says, and won't abandon her shop.

But hundreds of new people will come to the area, and some might stop in at the little store down the street.

"There's not a living soul in Walmart who can tell you anything in the pet department," Price said. "You can't go in a store like that and get the knowledge that 32 years of experience gives me."

Up the road at Newport Hardware, Moss found owner Don Walker standing behind the counter. Many customers have told Walker they plan to stay loyal to the 20-year-old hardware store.

"We talk about it all the time," Walker said. "They say they re going to stay with us. We ll be OK."

Newport isn't like the rest of eastern York County. In more developed areas, fewer people appreciate the idea of a small-town store owner, says Jane Thomas, a professor of consumer habits and marketing at Winthrop University.

"If I own a small business, I'm going to think about it," Thomas said. "But Rock Hill is such a big city today compared to 20 years ago. You may not truly have a personal relationship with a local merchant like you used to."

Raising larger issues

The questions go beyond what will happen to stores like Newport Hardware.

In sermons and Bible studies, Moss approaches the topic in different ways. There's the economic argument: Studies show locally-owned businesses put about twice as much money into the community as chains do.

Meanwhile, thousands of blue-collar workers have been laid off in South Carolina as manufacturing jobs shift to low-wage countries such as China.

Over the past decade, Walmart has doubled its imports from China to more than $18 billion. The figure is contained in The Wal-Mart Effect, a book Moss has read numerous times.

His copy is filled with the evidence: Sentences underlined with a pen, and notes scribbled in the margins.

But Moss also worries about the loss of community that comes when locals no longer share relationships with the people who provide their everyday products.

"The small business owner and the customer really depend on each other," he said. "I will never meet the people that run Walmart. Our well-being is not tied to each other. It's not their friends or family members being affected."

Moss started a Facebook group called Shopping Small as a way to encourage people to shop locally. More than 200 people have signed on.

Next Sunday, he plans a public forum called Hope in the Midst of Crisis to talk about the nation's economic troubles. Local agencies will outline their services and explain how people can get involved.

Moss plans to delve further into lessons related to Walmart, though he wants to be judicious in how often he raises the topic. Standing outside the sanctuary last week, the pastor summed up his aim.

"This is not about demonizing Walmart," he said. "This is about keeping a balance between the large corporation and the family business. We're at a point where it could go either way."