A Family Dollar in York, Alabama is one of the few shopping options in town. But it's shuttered due to a warehouse rodent infestation.



More than 400 Family Dollar stores in the U.S. have temporarily closed across six Southern and Midwestern states. They're shut because inspectors reported more than a thousand rodents at one of its large Arkansas warehouses. Stores need time to pull potentially contaminated items off their shelves. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom went to one of the many rural towns where dollar stores are some of the few places to buy food.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: As a cross-country trucker, Harris Wade could live just about anywhere. So he chose York, Ala., a town of 2,500 near the Mississippi border.

HARRIS WADE: Nice place here. You know, it's quiet. There ain't - just no real, real bunch of crime and stuff going on around here. And, you know, people know each other.

BISAHA: York has a bustling downtown not so much from shopping, but from a highway that cuts right through it...


BISAHA: ...And freight trains that come through the rail line.


BISAHA: Many stores here are shuttered, but artists have painted the brick buildings with giant murals of blue vinyl records showcasing the region's music. Wade does have one complaint. York doesn't have a grocery store.

WADE: You going to have to go 10 miles to get a gallon of milk. Yeah, you don't need that.

BISAHA: Luckily, he doesn't have to do that because the town has both a Dollar General and a Family Dollar. He can go there to get snacks for the road, eggs and that milk.

WADE: Oh, yeah. Hell, yeah. I'm a big fan of Family Dollar and Dollar General - both of them.

BISAHA: How do you feel about the Family Dollar being closed right now?

WADE: I hate it 'cause - shoot - a lot of people depend on that store. The older people around here ain't got a job. They're on fixed income.

BISAHA: That's true for lots of people in rural towns, which is why they depend so much on dollar stores. They're a place where people can buy everything from canned beans to motor oil not always literally for a dollar, but the stores emphasize cheap and convenient over glamour. They're some of the largest and fastest-growing chains in the country. The Family Dollar in York's one of 404 stores temporarily shuttered this week after the rats were discovered. The FDA warned that food and medicine that came from the warehouse could've been contaminated.

DERRICK BROWN: Kind of makes me a little skittish about buying, like, especially, like, food items and things out of there.

BISAHA: York resident Derrick Brown says he shopped at York's Family Dollar every other day. He's planning on going back when it reopens, though he might skip the aspirin, too.

BROWN: Even though I know it hasn't been open, but it's just the point (laughter) - just the thought of it (laughter).

BISAHA: Outside of restaurants, the only places selling food in York are gas stations and a convenience store. There are a couple small grocery stores about 10 miles away, but larger supermarkets like Walmart could mean an hour-long round trip. Dollar store prices are hard to beat, even for regional franchises like Piggly Wiggly. One in York closed in 2019 after less than a year open. Brown's not sad to see it go.

BROWN: Right before they closed, you know, they went up on their prices. And that's when they started going down, down, downhill. Five dollars for a gallon of milk, that's - you know, that's ridiculous.

BISAHA: But a bigger problem is the shrinking population in rural areas like York. There are just not enough shoppers to keep grocery stores in the black. That, along with high inflation, makes rural dollar stores even more essential. A lot of people are just happy to have a cheap nearby place to shop. Even the limited competition wants it back soon.


TIAUDRA ARTIS: Hey. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. How are you?

BISAHA: Tiaudra Artis is the general manager for Monica's (ph), half of which sells beauty supplies, the other half liquor, which she admits is an unusual combo.

ARTIS: For some people, it's right up their alley, though.

BISAHA: Artis says she celebrates having any business open in York, dollar store or otherwise.

ARTIS: Of course, you know, you want to support a local business and a small business. But when we have, I think, maybe seven businesses total, maybe 10, I'm all for it.

BISAHA: Family Dollar says the company's working to reopen the stores as soon as possible. A Family Dollar employee standing inside a different closed Alabama store says he expects his store to reopen either Sunday or Monday, when they get a new shipment from a different warehouse.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.