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The author of a new book on the impact of Wal-Mart on Bentonville claims she had offers for two appearances at libraries in Northwest Arkansas rescinded after library trustees expressed concern over how the book portrays Wal-Mart.
Marjorie Rosen is the author of the new book “Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community,” recently published by Chicago Review Press. The book features interviews with Bentonville residents who have seen their lives touched by the rise of Sam Walton's mega-corporation, including a black man who revolutionized the company's human resources department, a Muslim contractor who built the city's first synagogue, a Latino family that migrated to the area, and a trucker whose fortunes rose with the coming of industrial chicken production.
Rosen said that after reading the book, librarians at both the Bentonville Public Library and the Rogers Public Library were excited about the prospect of having her come to speak. A librarian at the Bentonville Public Library suggested “Boom Town” might be a candidate for the month when everyone in the area reads the same book. In Rogers, negotiations for her appearance got far enough along that librarians made plans to pick her up at the airport.
Then, unexpectedly, both appearances were called off. When she pressed library officials as to why, Rosen said, she was told that trustees of the libraries had expressed concerns about how it would play at Wal-Mart.
“[The Bentonville librarian] said, the trustee thought your book was quote-unquote ‘inflammatory,' and everything is off,” Rosen remembers. “I said that's a very serious charge to make an academic.” Even after Rosen offered to appear for free, to allow the library to pick the passage she would read, and to offer a chance for the public to ask her questions or challenge her about the content of the book after the reading, Bentonville library officials still refused.
Rosen said a similar thing happened in Rogers. Rosen said her contact there told her they were planning a big reception and a reading. The afternoon Rosen made her flight reservations, however, the librarian called back “panicked,” saying the trustees of the library had read her book.
“She was like a different person, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Rosen said. “It was like, ‘I'm sorry, but we have to cancel your lecture, we don't have enough money in the budget.' I said, ‘I'll do it for free. Don't worry about it.' ‘[The library official said] No, no, no. We can't. There's some political situation.' ”
Rosen has since approached the Bentonville Chamber of Commerce about hosting a reading of the book when she comes to Northwest Arkansas the first week of November, but hasn't heard anything from them at this writing. There are currently no readings scheduled in Bentonville. A reading at the Fayetteville Public Library on the evening of Nov. 3 and some appearances before college classes there are the only readings she has scheduled in Northwest Arkansas so far.
Judy Casey, director of the Rogers Public Library, said that the cancellation of Rosen's appearance there had nothing to do with Wal-Mart. She said that she had “tentatively confirmed” Rosen's reading at the library, but called back to cancel later the same day after speaking with trustees. The library was hosting a reading by the novelist James Patterson in October, Casey said, and it was decided that they shouldn't hold two author events so close together. Casey said that the “political situation” she mentioned to Rosen was in reference to local issues, not Wal-Mart. “We decided we were in budget hearings, things were being scrutinized about what we were doing and who we were having come in.” she said. “It had nothing to do with Wal-Mart. It was just some dynamics of where we were at right now with our library.”
Hattie Dudley, the director of the Bentonville Public Library, disputed the claim that Wal-Mart had anything to do with the cancellation of Rosen's reading there. Though Dudley said there is one Wal-Mart employee on the library board, she said the board knew nothing about the effort to schedule a reading for Rosen's book. She said the decision to not host a reading by Rosen was hers alone, and that the librarian who had spoken to Rosen about an appearance didn't have the authority to make programming decisions.
“This person wasn't involved in doing the programs for adults,” Dudley said. “That was kind of an informal chat with her about, this might be a good thing. Then, whenever we looked at our programming slate and our budget, we thought it wouldn't be something the library wanted to participate in.”
For her part, Rosen disputes the idea that the book is inflammatory. She said she believes it holds Bentonville up as a template for small town America when it comes to multicultural issues.
“I do talk about some vendors who went bankrupt as a result of Wal-Mart,” Rosen said. “But in general, it's a very positive book about Wal-Mart; what a good neighbor it is, and how Wal-Mart has created this comfortable, wealthy town that people want to stay in now.”
Rosen said she has no reason to suspect that Wal-Mart was directly involved in the cancellations of her readings, saying it was more likely the work of those who were “scared or protective” of the company. The experience has made her rethink what she had believed about Bentonville.
“It makes me think I was an easy mark, actually — that I didn't actually understand something about the long arm of Wal-Mart,” Rosen said. “These are libraries. They're supposed to be dealing with free speech, free expression, free thought and fact.”