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A rodent infestation shut down Family Dollar stores. How one Alabama town is coping

York's Family Dollar store is centrally located in town. The closure has created a shopping challenge for residents without cars.
Stephan Bisaha for NPR
York's Family Dollar store is centrally located in town. The closure has created a shopping challenge for residents without cars.

As a cross country trucker, Harris Wade could live just about anywhere. He chose York, Alabama, a town of 2,500 near the Mississippi border. He says it's quiet, hardly has any crime and is a welcoming place where "people know each other."

He does have one big complaint – York doesn't have a grocery store. Luckily, there's a Dollar General and Family Dollar so he doesn't have to drive 10 miles for a gallon of milk.

But this week the Family Dollar in York has been shuttered, along with 403 of the company's other stores across six Southern and Midwestern states. They closed after inspectors reported more than a thousand rodents at one of its largest Arkansas warehouses.

"I hate it cause, shoot, a lot of people depend on that store," Wade says. "The older people around here ain't got (a) job. They're on a fixed income."

They're about low prices, not style

Lots of rural towns like York depend on dollar stores. They're places where people can buy everything from canned beans to motor oil – not always literally for a dollar, but the stores emphasize price and convenience over style. Low overhead lets them operate in rural towns unable to support grocery stores.

But those dollar stores also make it harder for grocery stores to stay open, as they struggle to compete with the low prices. Many dollar stores don't offer fresh produce and meat and sell few nutritious options.

Towns like York are eager to have more food choices, but are grateful for the few they have.

Dollar stores "fill the gap," says Allison Brantley, economic development director at the University of West Alabama. "It's not perfect. It doesn't solve the issue. But it helps."

York regularly recruits artists to temporarily live and work in the town.
/ Stephan Bisaha for NPR
/
Stephan Bisaha for NPR
York regularly recruits artists to temporarily live and work in the town.

Warehouse rodent infestation led to the store closures

The median household income in York is $25,202. Many residents live on fixed-incomes and have no car. The Dollar General store is located two miles away, Family Dollar's spot right in the center of town makes it a much better walking option.

But those doors have been closed this week. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said a warehouse the York store relied on had rodents, both live and decaying. Food, drugs and other items could have been contaminated. The company said it's working to reopen the stores as soon as possible as it tosses away products from that warehouse and sanitizes "impacted areas."

"Kind of makes me a little skittish about buying especially food items and things out of there," says York resident Derrick Brown.

Russ Henley said he wasn't surprised by the rodent news. He lives just outside of York and used to drive in to shop at the Family Dollar for convenience. But it was never a fun experience. Floors were sticky. Shelves left disheveled. Crowded aisles made passing other shoppers impossible.

"I never came out of there delighted with my shopping experience," Henley says..

Brown says he's mostly had good experiences at the store – though that depended on who was working that day. His evaluation – "you get what you pay for."

Tiaudra Artis is the general manager at Monica's in York, which her mother owns.
/ Stephan Bisaha for NPR
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Stephan Bisaha for NPR
Tiaudra Artis is the general manager at Monica's in York, which her mother owns.

Dollar or nothing

People in town want the Family Dollar store back open as soon as safely possible. Even one of its competitors hopes for a quick return.

Tiaudra Artis is the general manager at Monica's in York's downtown. The store's split between two halves – turn left for beauty supplies, right for liquor. Her mom, who owns the store, wanted to give people a place to buy hair products that wasn't a 30 minute drive away. The liquor store added variety.

Since the Family Dollar closed, people have been coming in asking if she sells things that fit neither category, like batteries. For those without a car, she doesn't know where to send them.

"You don't have a CVS. You don't have a Walgreens. Walmart. Target. Any of those things, your options are dwindling drastically," she says. "So yes, Family Dollar, we kind of need you over here."

York Mayor Willie Lake stands in front of an aerial photograph of York.
/ Stephan Bisaha for NPR
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Stephan Bisaha for NPR
York Mayor Willie Lake stands in front of an aerial photograph of York.

Mayor Willie Lake's assessment is more tempered. He calls the dollar stores a double-edged sword because grocery stores have trouble competing with their low prices.

Even regional franchises struggle. In 2019, a Piggly Wiggly in York closed after being open less than a year.

But Lake is hopeful York can get a grocery store back with enough town support. In a couple weeks a butcher's shop will open downtown.

"I have no problem with the dollar stores being here," he said. "We just have to learn how to compete. We are a capitalist society and you can't put your head in the sand because you have competition."

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