I'd rather have six root canals than to shop at Wal-Mart. But as in many small towns across the country, there aren't a lot of other options for many of the items one needs.

I recently had to replace one of our home telephones that had died. Once upon a time, before deregulation made a nightmare of telephone service (?), I could've made just one call to Kindly Ma Bell — no 40 levels of Voice Mail Hell — and she'd have dispatched an ever-so-pleasant serviceman with a new phone.

But no more. At our local Wally World, I found a speakerphone with 13-name memory dialing and many other features Kindly Ma Bell never dreamt of offering (or if she did, it was at an extra charge). The phone was made in China and cost $9.95.

If Wal-Mart can buy the phone in China, have it shipped halfway across the world, sell it for $9.95, and make a profit, one wonders what the original manufacturing cost was? $2.95? $1.00?

As seems to be the case that things happen in bunches, one of our VCRs also died (for reasons totally unfathomable to me, my wife requires at least two of the machines to tape soaps and other shows). It was not so many years ago that a VCR cost $500 and required a degree in computer science and/or electrical engineering to program (it is equally unfathomable that aforementioned wife, whose degrees are in English and education, has never met a VCR she cannot program without so much as looking at the manual).

The Wal-Mart VCR I purchased for $39.95 has infinitely more features than earlier-day $500 models, and even a klutz such as I can program the thing (figuring out the multi-dozen-button remote control is another matter).

It is one of the ironies of the age that when an electronic device fails, it is cheaper to throw it away and buy a new one than to have it repaired.

One has only to wander around a Wal-Mart to find countless similar examples: quartz watches that once cost $100 or more, now $4.43; picture frames and other wood products from China at a fraction of the cost of American-produced goods; dirt cheap TVs/stereos/electronic products; and, of course, all manner of clothing/textile products from China, Bangladesh, and other Asian countries.

Wal-Mart, we are told, is the largest single purchaser in the world of made-in-China goods. Even in small towns such as ours, as fast as it can the company is replacing older stores with acres-huge SuperCenters that offer an even vaster array of products, a large percentage of which are imports.

The Wal-Martization of retail trade and the demolishing of textile quotas and other trade barriers, the economists tell us, are just the free market at work, with consumers reaping the benefit of a wider array of cheaper goods.

It is, they also say, a regrettable but necessary consequence that those cheaper goods come at the cost of thousands of business failures and millions of jobs eliminated.

All those unemployed and underemployed doubtless take comfort in knowing they've played a role in making things cheaper.