Activism on Aisle Six!

Senior shopper pushes back on community microaggressions 

Few people would argue that society has changed a lot in the last three years, but it’s not always obvious just how many ways we’re still impacted. Especially when it comes to the little, everyday stuff. Like shopping carts and baskets for instance, which have been disappearing from stores in mystifying numbers. It’s an $800 million dollar a year problem nationwide! Here in Philly, the PPD announced a new initiative last year to try to recover as many as possible from sidewalks, bus stops, parks and other public spaces where they have become a real nuisance in many areas.

What’s going on? Some sources blame bans on plastic bags, claiming that shoppers are walking off with store property instead of buying reusable bags. Others suggest that people are so desperate they’re selling them for scrap metal, but that doesn’t explain the sheer numbers of abandoned ones everywhere, nor why baskets – which are made of plastic —  are vanishing as well.

In Germantown, RiteAid’s manager did not offer much explanation when he told Carolyn Tarver the store would no longer provide shopping carts and baskets for customers. “People around here are only gonna steal them,” he said, as if that was an excuse. For Carolyn, though, this attitude was unacceptable. A deacon at the First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, she knew that for many seniors in her congregation (and the surrounding neighborhood), local shopping was key to their independence.

So she did a little detective work, checking up on various Rite Aids in the area. And the pattern that unfolded only troubled her more. The good news is, with pressure and persistence, she succeeded in persuading Rite Aid to replace these crucial conveniences for shoppers of all abilities. Big thanks to our State Representative, Stephen Kinsey, for his help along the way, and also to community reporter Joe Healy, who documented her efforts and followed up with this insightful recap.

🛒 A CASE FOR CARTS (baskets, too) 🧺

Joe Healy: What was your first reaction when you learned RiteAid was eliminating shopping carts and baskets?

Deacon Tarver:  I know that store had gotten hit hard during the George Floyd riots, but it’s been a while, and they have insurance, plus COVID relief funds. Couldn’t they afford one of those systems where the carts stop working past a certain point?

I had $250 of items to buy but needed a cart. And I asked them if they had anything in the back or somewhere I could use to help me, but they said there was nothing they could do. It felt like the manager didn’t much care. Very lackadaisical.

It’s weird that Rite Aid wouldn’t do the bare minimum to accommodate shoppers, especially seniors. The pharmacy is the one place they come to for the prescriptions they need to live!

Yes! And my question is, “Do you know how much money you’re missing out on?” Because there are so many seniors in this area. That’s a lot of money Rite-Aid’s turning down!

So after checking out all the Rite Aid’s in the 19144, I had a good understanding of the scope of the problem.

When I heard about this story, I checked one near Chestnut Hill, in Mt Airy — and they had them. 

Yup. City Line’s Rite Aid had carts, too; so did East Falls and Roxborough. So I started wondering if more wasn’t going on, especially after I got a call from their corporate office — from their legal department, not customer service. She gave me a number for their civil rights attorney. Makes you think.

Do you feel like maybe this sort of behavior is, like, spiteful? Against communities with more people of color because of the riots?

Exactly. And it’s very frustrating because I can take my money elsewhere — in theory. But the truth of the matter is that we need our local pharmacies. Many seniors don’t drive; even young families don’t have cars, and children get sick too. We can’t afford to lose essential services in our communities.

I have a friend who lives in Maryland. She says this reminds her of what happened to all the supermarkets. Was a time not that long ago that every neighborhood had a grocery store you could walk to. Now we hear about “food deserts” – these shops didn’t all shut down at once. It took years. Little by little, the service and quality went down, down, down. She even wonders if it’s a way to completely pull out of our neighborhood. If you discourage people from shopping there by not giving them carts, you can show these poor sales numbers and use them as an excuse to pull out completely.

And if that happens, what sort of establishment will take their place? Will we even have a pharmacy any more, and will we still be able to get name-brand drugs and products? Will the prices be too high? These things could have bad consequences for the community, especially for low-income people like seniors.

For me, this was an issue for activism. So I contacted our State Representative, Stephen Kinsey. He didn’t have much luck at first, either! But eventually, he got a hold of their Civil Rights lawyer in Harrisburg. And then the next time I returned to the Rite Aid at Chelten & Wayne, I counted eight carts. And I’m so thankful!

But of course, now I wonder what’s happening in other neighborhoods across the city. If they’re getting away with it there. Maybe this was a trial? Maybe they were trying to see how far they could get.

Some businesses try to push you. A few months ago, I was shopping up on Olney. And there was a lady; who went up to the security guard asking him if he had a key to the bathroom because it was locked. And he said, ’You people can’t use the bathroom here’ because it was too small. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? Isn’t that your job, to make your store accessible to all people?’

I feel like that’s your message here. If a store’s open for customers, everyone should be able to shop there. We all have worth, deserve the same respect, and our money’s all green.

Thanks for talking me through this. To sum up, what would you say to younger people trying to make things better in their community?

You’re going to have to be proactive in all your solutions. And persistent! I couldn’t just run to Stephen Kinsey. I had to call Rite Aid and keep after them over weeks: “Hey, I’ll be in the area. Do you have shopping carts available yet?” Finally, when they told me they weren’t planning to replace them, I had to document that and start calling every government contact I had, telling the same story over and over.

So I would tell young people that change is possible, but you need to take charge and really commit to your goals. It would help if good adult role models were easier to come by, but many parents these days are unwilling or unable to make that effort.

There’s a lot of bad stuff going on; many people are scared – I’m scared! But we can’t give up hope.

We can’t stop calling out injustice – no matter how small it might seem, and that’s what this was with the shopping carts. Make no mistake; I trust my gut here. And it’s important to realize that this was done right under our noses. We need to be aware of this kind of stuff and look out for one another. However minor successes like this may seem, it’s progress. That’s important to remember.

This interview was edited for clarity. 

AGREE? DISAGREE? Let us know what you think in the comments below. Email to share privately, or to suggest your own ideas for grassroots activism in your neighborhood — or people that Joe should talk to for his next local story. 

About Joe Healy 1 Article
Joe resides in Germantown with his partner and 2 cats. He's passionate about movies, music, tech and social issues.

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