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Why Wal-Mart wouldn't carry ''Where the Heart Is''

It took Oprah Winfrey and a Hollywood deal to get the book into stores

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Natalie Portman
Suzanne Tenner

Most companies only dream of the kind of product placement Wal-Mart snags in ”Where the Heart Is” when pregnant teen Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman) takes up residence at one of the chain’s stores after being abandoned by her callous boyfriend. Further polishing the retailer’s image is Portman herself, who gushes, ”I had never been to a Wal-Mart before the film, and I fell in love with them. They’re the greatest places.”

What sounds like brilliant Hollywood marketing actually began years ago with the author of the best-selling novel, Billie Letts. ”I walked into one of those Wal-Mart super centers and said to my husband, ‘Someone could live here!”’ Letts tells EW Online. ”It wasn’t my purpose to promote it, but I do get letters from people asking me if Wal-Mart paid me to write the book.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. ”As a matter of fact, Wal-Mart didn’t like the book,” says Letts, who adds that the chain refused to carry it when it was first published in 1995. ”They originally said that the book did not reflect well on Wal-Mart, but in a later, more official statement they said it was not commercial enough.” Letts says it wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey chose ”Where the Heart Is” for her book club and decided to hold a book club dinner at a Chicago-area Wal-Mart that the company changed its tune. ”I was amazed,” she says. ”Oprah has some clout.”

Wal-Mart spokesperson Melissa Barryhill argues that the decision not to carry the book was simply based on supply and demand. ”It wasn’t on the best-seller list,” she says. ”But once our customers started asking for it and we saw it had a proven following, we were happy to carry it.” Though Barryhill says the chain isn’t promoting the film, she says Wal-Mart is not only thrilled with the movie but was also happy to allow the filmmakers to shoot scenes at two of its Texas stores. ”I think the story is very touching and reaffirms that Wal-Mart is for everyone,” she says.

Wal-Mart’s flip-flop hasn’t soured Letts on the store. The retired university professor still shops at her local branch. ”In the small town where I live, Wal-Marts have wiped out the traditional Main Street, so that’s become the place everyone goes,” she says. Wal-Mart may not be where everyone’s heart is, but hey, when ya’ need toothpaste, it’ll do.