Katy Burns: Sears sinks, and a bit of history disappears

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/9/2020 6:45:17 AM

About 30 years ago we arrived at our temporary home in Bow bearing two suitcases, two sleeping bags, two cats and a litterbox. The rest of our stuff was in a moving van somewhere in Pennsylvania. And the house we were renting definitely needed a little TLC before the truck got there with our furniture and rugs.

The next morning my husband went in to Concord and picked up a few cleaning supplies, including a small canister vacuum cleaner from the Sears store on Main Street. He knew Sears – no matter that he’d never seen that particular store before – would have a vacuum cleaner.

He loved the store itself. It was, he reported, a sort of higgledy-piggledy place, what appeared to be two 19th-century buildings cobbled together (as is so often found in New England’s older towns and cities) to form one, with slightly crooked walls and uneven floors.

I never had the pleasure of shopping in that charming emporium. Within a few months, it had relocated to a spiffy new store at the shiny new Steeplegate Mall, where it continued to sell the stuff for which Sears had become famous, including its respected Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances, as well as furniture, linens, household goods and clothing.

Nothing at Sears was stylish or trendy. But the merchandise was well made, practical, sturdy. Even the clothes were somehow sturdy! And people bought and trusted Sears merchandise.

That’s why my husband knew, before even setting foot in the store, that he’d find what we needed at Sears. And other people knew that too.

Until they didn’t. They wanted stuff like that which Sears offered – but sleeker, more stylish, or maybe cheaper. And Sears had on-the-ground competition – discount clothing outlets, a growing number of big-box stores. Traffic in the free-standing and mall-based Sears shops slowed. Including at Steeplegate.

Several years ago I went to Sears to look for a watch. I entered from the parking lot and walked through the entire store looking for jewelry before I found the right counter. I stood for maybe 10 minutes, but no ever came to show me – and to sell me – a watch. I encountered one salesperson in the store – in bedding. I ended up buying a timepiece at neighboring J.C. Penney’s.

Steeplegate is still there, even if it is bit of a retail ghost town as Americans’ purchasing patterns change. The mall’s attracting alternative users – a school, a fitness center, Hatbox Theatre. And that Penney’s is hanging in.

But the spiffy Sears store? It’s pretty much cleaned out, little left but the counters and shelves – and they’re being carted off by… well, people who think they can use department store shelves and counters, I guess. In a week or so it will close its doors forever, as will many other Sears stores around the country.

Sears, the parent company, seems to be dying a slow death as it departs more and more locations, sadly shrinking, just a shadow of the merchandising colossus it once was.

It’s an ignominious end for what was once a true retail powerhouse. Fifty or so years ago, there seemed to be a Sears store in every city – except it was most often referred to as Sears Roebuck, named after its two founders, Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck, who in 1886 began as merchandisers of watches and jewelry in Minneapolis before relocating the business to Chicago a year later.

The two businessmen began selling through a mail-order catalog – catalogs were a popular alternative to the limited (and pricey) offerings in local general stores – and by the mid-1890s the company was peddling a 532-page catalog offering everything from sewing machines, dolls, bicycles and sporting goods to groceries and clothing.

The catalog – which from 1908 to 1940 even included entire ready-to-assemble house kits, with several models to choose from – became known as “the consumer’s bible.” It was especially valued in rural African American communities, otherwise captive to Jim Crow racial segregation practices and injustices.

In the 1920s, the company began to move into urban markets by building stores – with plenty of parking – in middle-class neighborhoods, and by the 1950s the stores began to overshadow the catalog market. Later, the big book – expensive to produce and distribute – began to shrink. In 1993, it was discontinued, costing the jobs of the thousands who filled the orders. Ironically, they dismantled an operation that in another 15 years would have been a ready-made internet retail program.

In more recent years, the company has had rounds of store-closings, costing yet more jobs and leaving vacant retail space around the country.

And now, sadly, it’s Concord’s turn. The carcass of the store is being picked over, and not much is left to scavenge. I didn’t linger at the funeral. Too depressing.

With luck, the enterprising mall operators will find another tenant for the space. I hope so, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a nice space, our mall – clean, attractive, well-maintained, with many businesses well worth a visit. And as many of us know, it’s a lovely, climate-controlled place to walk any time of the year, with comfortable chairs and benches.

I can’t say I’ll miss the shell that was once Sears. Sears has had a good, remarkably long ride, and now it’s over. But I’d really miss the mall.

And yes, we still have that little canister vacuum cleaner. Sears stuff is durable, even if the store wasn’t.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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