Buzzards line the branches. Headlines blare “retail apocalypse.” The grim reaper sharpens his scythe, which his great-granddaddy purchased at Sears, the same retail giant that, like the Titanic, is sinking fast.
Sears, of course, is just the poster child for the shift in shopping habits created by the internet.
Read my requiem — and weep.
In 1836, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck founded the catalog company serving farm folks who lived a ways from town. As offerings expanded from machinery and hard goods to clothing, the eagerly anticipated catalogs — thicker than big-city telephone directories — became known as “wish books.”
Now, they bring a pretty penny at antique shops.
Shopping was an event for pre-baby boomers. Kids put on clean clothes and went uptown to Sears or Belk or J.C. Penney or a local equivalent, where Mama trudged them from department to department buying shoes, underwear, stockings, towels, maybe a new hat. Then you got an ice cream soda at the drugstore and went home.
At Manhattan’s famous emporia — Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Gimbel’s, Saks —purchases were charged to a store account (no Visa, MasterCard, Amex) and delivered, free.
My connection to Sears began in the ’40s, when my mother and I spent every summer in Greensboro with her parents. No playmates, no toys, no air conditioning and, because of polio, no swimming pools, movies, restaurants or parks. Granddaddy had a wind-up Victrola and a radio, but TV was years distant.
Instead, when my girl cousins came for Sunday dinner, we cut out paper dolls from the Sears catalog, which was three times bigger than the Greensboro phone book. Once or twice during the afternoon, my teenage boy cousins would grab it, flip through the pages and make lewd comments about “foundation garments” that covered more bosom than today’s street clothes
This was a true mail-order catalog; orders were sent and packages delivered by mail. The only thing my mother ordered was winter underwear, those flesh-colored knickers called “woolies.” Because you don’t walk into Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue and ask for woolies.
In 1949, we moved from Manhattan to Asheville. I had attended a prim girls’ school requiring uniforms. Here, little girls wore plaid cotton dresses from J.C. Penney or Sears. Just so happened that the local Sears manager lived across the street. His twin daughters were my age. Of course they had a closetful of pretty cotton dresses, whereas I was sent to school in tweed skirts and plain white blouses.
My mother wouldn’t budge. I practically died until Mr. Wentzel, my fairy godfather, appeared carrying several brand-new plaid cotton dresses — manufacturers’ samples, he said, and just my size.
Did we want them? My mother couldn’t risk being impolite.
I turned to sturdy Sears-brand onesies, rompers, overalls and T-shirts after having three babies in 3½ years, although their prêt-a-porter was a bit mumsie.
Then, in the late 1980s, we bought a house in need of a new kitchen. The contractor recommended Kenmore appliances — which were in my price range, he said with distain. I walked into Sears and, in 30 minutes, bought a refrigerator, stove, range-hood microwave, dishwasher, garbage disposal. With them came a stellar serviceman who carried a laptop, which displayed my complete appliance history.
I had never seen a laptop. I was so impressed. This second fairy godfather knew I preferred early appointments, which he automatically scheduled. When, after a few years the microwave malfunctioned, he installed a new one the same day.
Sometimes, he just happened to have an extra jug of Sears detergent in his truck.
How about the time I punctured a tire, alone in the middle of nowhere but not far from a Sears automotive dealership which rose up like an oasis in the Sahara?
Sure, lady — you sit down and have a cup of coffee. We’ll fix that.
Immediately after moving to Southern Pines, I found the Sears outpost, bought a bottom-of-the-line Kenmore washer and dryer. Honestly, the fancy ones look like Porsches. All I wanted was clean clothes.
With the advent of Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Walmart, Home Depot, et al., I shopped less and less at Sears except for bathrobes, quilts and the same sturdy overalls, this time for my grandsons. But I knew it was there, the matriarch of American middle-class department stores, frumpy but comforting, full of memories.
Like the image of my father standing with a dozen mesmerized guys in front of 20 giant color TVs (we still had black-and-white), watching a Saturday afternoon football game. He had come to buy a wrench. Like, yeah.
I know. Eulogizing a department store is just plain silly. Better to cry over a deceased pet or an old car. Except the impending demise of Sears punctuates the end of an era, when cars were big, supper was homemade, guns were for hunting, living rooms were lived in, telephones had cords, mommies did day care.
A better era? Maybe. Maybe not. Ask the grim reaper, sharpening his scythe.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.