So Sears is going down the tubes. Who cares?
Well, I do, actually. When I heard about the recent bankruptcy announcement by what we used to know as Sears-Roebuck, it kind of got to me, like the death of an old and once-close friend or relative.
Oh, I’m not talking about the more familiar Sears of recent years or decades, which changing times have caused to evolve — or degenerate — into just another chain of department stores struggling to make a go of it in tired shopping malls.
No, I’m talking about the Sears of my Midwestern youth — the immensely successful, Chicago-based catalog company that had become such a powerful part of our lives in the 1950s.
I hail from the small town of Carthage — not our Moore County seat, but a different Carthage, tucked away in the southwestern corner of Missouri. Growing up there on the edge of the Great Plains invariably involved a pervasive sense of being stranded in the middle of what current residents still defensively refer to as “Flyover Country.”
Yes, Harry Truman was from Missouri, but mostly the rest of us went through life feeling vaguely bypassed, isolated and forgotten — deprived of many of the luxuries and varieties enjoyed by those dwelling along the distant Eastern and Western edges of the continent.
That’s the void that the old Sears so ably and systematically filled. Since its founding in 1892 by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck, this mail-order giant had diligently set out to find ever-more-imaginative ways to meet just about every possible material need of its loyal customers. And it succeeded in spades, raking in more revenue than any other American retailer all the way up to 1989, when Walmart overtook it.
At its peak, the company displayed an amazing variety of tempting offerings in 2-inch-thick catalogs that the mailman would periodically plop on our doorstep. As I recall, these cornucopias bulging with endless goods and services would arrive a couple of times every year — the first in the spring and the second in the fall, loaded with Christmas gift ideas.
My parents would focus on things like clothes, toiletries, hardware or furniture. But I would spend hours absorbed in leafing through these dreamboat publications — focusing in the early years on all those pages of neat toys and games and bicycles, then turning my teen-age attention to the .22 rifles and shotguns and hunting knives and fishing rods.
But it was also impossible to ignore the astounding number of lesser-known, more specialized offerings that were also to be found in those books, mostly toward the back. Here are just a few examples that come to mind:
Rural trappers could send in raw beaver or mink pelts, with checks promised by return mail.
My tall, extra-skinny father, who had trouble finding clothes that fit, could pick out a fabric sample, decide on a style, have my mom measure him, and then send all that info off to Chicago. A few weeks later, the parcel post guy would deliver a beautiful, perfectly proportioned blue serge suit or whatever.
For a couple of years back then, you could even order cars from the Sears catalog. They went by the name Allstate, though they were just thinly disguised versions of the off-brand, funny-looking Henry J, manufactured by Kaiser-Frazer Corporation. I’m not sure how many they ever sold, but I doubt that Ford or GM ever felt terribly threatened.
If you think Sears cars are weird, consider that there were decades (before my time) when you could order a Sears house. They came in dozens of models, and thousands of them were sold during the first half of the 20th century. Once your order had been processed, railcars would deliver 25 tons of building materials, including more than 30,000 precut parts, and local carpenters could get to work assembling them. Several such mail-order homes are still standing in Moore County.
Those are just a few odd chapters of the fascinating story that reached a nadir when Sears Holdings Corp. filed for bankruptcy Oct. 15.
Please note, however, that this shutdown does not affect our own small local Sears store, which stands just off North Sandhills Boulevard in Aberdeen and offers an array of appliances and hardware products. It is part of a separate corporation, Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores.
“It remains business as usual at all of our locations,” reads a statement that the manager of the local store handed me, “and we look forward to continuing to provide you with outstanding service, value and convenience.”
It’s good to know Sears will live on in some version. But sorry — it’s just not the same.