2009-11-26 / Features

Shoppers Clash On Pa. Stores That Won’t Sell Flags

By Jon Rutter

QUARRYVILLE, Pa. (AP) – Kenneth Burkholder is perplexed.

His business, Good’s Store Inc., is one of hundreds of Amish and Mennonite stores that do not sell American flags.

Nobody’s singling out the other places.

But Good’s is under fire.

The sender of a recent mass e-mailing claimed that a young, unnamed Good’s sales clerk “wrinkled her nose’’ in disdain when quizzed about flag sales.

“We don’t sell those here,’’ the clerk supposedly said, “and we never will.’’

It’s true that flags aren’t in the general store’s inventory, said Burkholder, the company president. The families that own the stores are Anabaptists, who view the banner primarily as a symbol of military might.

But, he said, it’s false to imply that this faith group, which includes Amish and Mennonites, is anti-American.

Nor could Good’s find proof that the supposed testy exchange with an employee ever took place, Burkholder added.

“We researched it. That was my main concern,’’ Burkholder emphasized, that the company not appear arrogant.

Burkholder acknowledged that the flag “means a lot of different things to different people.’’

Good’s does not condemn people for buying flags, he said. The company pays its taxes, respects differing viewpoints and supports the community.

He said he and his employees are grateful to live in a country that tolerates religious freedom.

But he’s still puzzled by the periodic contention over the flag policy.

Anabaptists have embraced nonviolence and distanced themselves from the military, and from iconography, since the 1500s, Burkholder pointed out. “It’s not like we came up with something new here.’’

Good’s Store in downtown Quarryville, about 50 miles west of Philadelphia and southeast of Harrisburg, is typically placid.

Potted mums set off the sturdy brick and masonry storefront.

Light traffic proceeds steadily in and out of the parking lot, where a digital sign promotes products in the store.

Inside, customers shop among racks of clothing, household items and hardware.

“We don’t know the source’’ of the message or what triggered it recently, Burkholder said.

But the tune was familiar, right down to the urged boycott.

Just like they did eight years ago, after the terrorist attacks, some customers complained and vowed to shop elsewhere.

But others jumped to support Good’s, which also has central Pennsylvania stores north of Quarryville in East Earl, Ephrata and Schaefferstown.

Detractors say the business operates on American soil and benefits from the sacrifices of American troops, and so should salute their emblem.

“Cowards and hypocrites!’’ charged one anonymous critic in an online forum hosted by newspapers in nearby Lancaster. “They are so quick to condemn the U.S.A. and the military.’’

Defenders argue that the store has a right to choose its own merchandise precisely because this is a free land.

“There are lots of people who would sell you a flag who would also be tax cheats, sell you inferior goods, try to charge you unfairly, etc.,’’ wrote another. “With whom would you rather do business? An honest man who’s trying to live by his faith, or someone who will do anything for a buck?’’

Greg Kerek Sr. took a philosophical view of the debate.

The 70-year-old Lancaster man, who has taken part in a local charity race each spring for the past 25 years, is well-known for carrying a large American flag on a pole to the finish line.

He’s also a National Guard veteran who described himself as “very up on the military.’’

As to Good’s ban on flag sales, he added, “I don’t like that mindset at all.’’

Conversely, he said he’d protect the rights of any “dyed-inthe wool pacifist.’’

Steve Johnson, who operates an antiques store in downtown Lancaster, said the flare-up over Good’s raised some interesting questions.

“It opens up a discussion that can go all over the place,’’ he said. “Is our flag a symbol of our national unity ... or is it a military symbol?’’

You could write an essay on the topic, Johnson said.

Burkholder said the brouhaha is not going to affect the store’s Amish and Mennonite customers.

Nor is it going to compel the 51-year-old business to start stocking American flags.

All the same, he added, he would prefer that people just stop talking – and writing – about what’s for sale at Good’s.

“We’ve been through this a number of years,’’ Burkholder said.

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