How the transit of Venus led to my latest story

On June 5, Venus was a small dot making its way across the sun. I was standing in a field outside the library here in Springfield, Mo., watching as several hundred people flocked to the grassy knoll to look through one of the dozen telescopes that had been gathered for public use.

Another reporter and I were chatting with the librarians who have helped the Stry.Us team get settled into this community. As people herded their children into lines behind the telescopes to look at the tiny black dot on the sun, we were discussing a fairly morbid and strange freak accident before jumping to a related topic: Things you can find on the side of train tracks.

One of the librarians said her family sometimes frequented a type of retail establishment colloquially known as a “trainwreck store.” The concept behind these stores — more officially known as salvage stores — is selling goods that were damaged in transit. Most stores also sell things like groceries that are past the “sell-by” date when most mainstream retailers will no longer stock them. Now, the question I had was, “Wait, so people actually buy things that have fallen off of trains?”

Photo by Dan Oshinsky, Stry.Us

The next question was, “Who, exactly, goes looking for these damaged, dented, dilapidated products?” It seemed, like the interplanetary event happening above, to be an exceedingly rare phenomenon.

The librarian, understandably, had little knowledge of how this industry operated. But, she did know that there were several such stores in this area of the country, and I quickly found out there are actually hundreds of them in America. While I will tell you that no one actually collects damaged goods from the side of the tracks, there is a robust market for products that your big-box chains want nothing to do with. Mainly because they are cheap. Very cheap.

And the market, it turns out, has exploded since the recession hit in 2008. What I found in writing the story, “Nobody Beats Walmart Prices. Except Maybe These Guys,” was a business model predicated on delivering things everyone needs to people who are either unable or unwilling to pay the same prices as “everyone.” On the north side of this city, I found a grocery store in a strip mall that was crawling with people thankful for its existence. Strapped by the recession and suddenly aware of the price of goods, many locals have found the tiny sub-industry of salvage grocery stores in the blinding light of economic hardship.

But the reality is hardship is not cyclical. The store has been open for 31 years and expanded its facilities twice. In society’s constant evolution, more and more people are gravitating toward the salvage business — a sturdy rock offering hope and sustenance even as the cloud of distress threatens to darken their futures.

Read the story here: Nobody Beats Walmart Prices. Except Maybe These Guys

UPDATE: Mike Dang of Longreads picked up the piece and started a nice discussion over on The Billfold.

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