The Biggest Five and Dime in the World
A Visit to Bentonville, Arkansas Wal-Mart Ground Zero

1228 The Wal Mart visitor's center in Bentonville. CLUI photo

IT LOOKS LIKE A TYPICAL small town five and dime store circa 1945, right on the village green across from the courthouse. It even says "5-10" in red letters. Even though that is exactly what it once was, its now just a facade. Go inside the front door, and as a greeter in a blue vest welcomes you in (just as at every Wal-Mart store), you begin to sense the contrasting worlds: you're not in a five and dime or a Wal-Mart, but in a sort of meta-store: a gift shop selling souvenirs about the largest retailer in the world. This is the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Visitors Center, located in the building where Sam Walton had his first store, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Beyond the greeter and gift shop/foyer is the corporate public relations environment of the Visitors Center, a labyrinth of trade-show like displays and vitrines telling the Wal-Mart story. Highlights of the information-packed gallery include "Sam Walton's Favorite Pickup" (a 1979 Ford, permanently parked on a riser inside the gallery), photographs of Sam Walton's sprawling house, located just outside town, and behind glass windows, a full-size recreation of his office at the corporate headquarters.

Besides starting his first business here, living here, and building the first store with the Wal-Mart name here (actually the first one was opened in Rogers, the next town over), Sam insisted that the corporate office remain in this small town in rural northwestern Arkansas. Suitably, the Corporate Headquarters for the 3,360-plus Wal-Mart stores across the globe (including China) is not on Main Street, in the old center of town, like the visitor's center, but is a mile or so away on the commercial strip, down the road from the usual strip fixtures like Applebees and Meineke Muffler, and within sight, of course, of a Wal-Mart store.