Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sears Had Everything

The "Walton" Craftman house plan
The first news item that I read last Monday morning was that Sears was filing for bankruptcy. The news is certainly not a surprise at this point, but still, I'm a Baby Boomer, and for generations before mine, and even the one following, Sears was an institution. A jingle years ago said, "Sears Has Everything!" Even though the company was sued over this claim some years later, the fact remains that at that time, it really did stock more items than just about any other American retailer. Some people refer to it as the original Amazon. Sears even sold house plans and kits. Today's popular Craftsman style house was actually an invention of Sears (there's a fascinating podcast about this at

Richard Warren Sears
Sears, Roebuck & Company was founded by Richard Warren Sears (we share the same first and middle names, by the way) and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1892, and for years upon years, its catalog was a staple of American households in every nook and cranny of America. In it, you could find clothing, tools, musical instruments, and home goods. It was a great pastime, and actually somewhat educational, to just sit and browse the catalog, and it seemed like everyone was on the mailing list. The catalog was the ultimate wish book: there were things in there you didn't even know existed, but the pictures and descriptions effectively constituted a retail encyclopedia of the time. It's no exaggeration to say that Sears set the stage for online shopping.

Alvah Curtis Roebuck
Sears even had a sense of humor, although they probably didn't always realize it. One day when I was away at college and on the phone with my parents, they asked if I'd seen the latest catalog. I knew that something was up, because my parents were laughing so hard that they could barely ask the question. When I replied that I'd mostly been looking at chemistry books (which was actually true), they told me why they were so amused. Apparently, on page something-or-other in the men's underwear section, a minor wardrobe malfunction had occurred with one of the models, or at least that's what appeared to have happened. Finally seeing the catalog some time later, I had to agree that the editors appeared to have been a little lax on that one. Or maybe it was just a shadow.

But Sears did not live by the catalog alone: its stores, located all over the country from small towns to big cities, were bustling centers of commerce. Its grand old buildings, erected mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, dotted the American landscape from coast to coast. Smaller suburban stores were often the anchors of shopping centers and later, malls. People would buy each other clothes from Sears for Christmas because the logic was that if the item didn't fit, you could just "take it back to Sears," the thinking being that everyone had a Sears close to their home.

A Sears nut and candy shop
The stores stocked absolutely everything, but there were a few common threads regardless of location. For one, almost every Sears store featured a candy and peanut kiosk built in one of the main aisles. This always imparted a carnival aroma to the store, and it was a uniquely Sears thing. A Penney's or Montgomery Ward would not smell like this. When you got downstairs (there were usually two floors) to the hardware and automotive departments, the smell was decidedly that of freshly molded tires. Even catalog orders had a whiff of the "tire smell." If you positioned yourself between the upper and lower floors, or in the case of single-level stores, somewhere in the middle, you would be treated to the combined essences of fresh rubber, warm chocolate, and roasted peanuts, all at the same time. It may sound a little off-putting, but it was actually part of the whole Sears experience and not really offensive.

Ad for the Lemon Frog Shop
In today's competitive clothing market, it's probably hard to believe that at one point, many of us actually bought lots of clothing at Sears. In the late 60's, many teen girls stocked their wardrobes from the Lemon Frog Shop, which featured the latest in flower-power garments in vivid colors. When I went away to Chicago for college in 1973, I pulled out my suggested clothing list from Northwestern (published for the benefit of those of us from warmer climates) and purchased almost everything from Sears. I bought red and blue plaid flannel shirts, jeans, hiking boots, and a "survival parka," one of those coats that was navy with bright orange lining. You couldn't beat Sears prices, and again, the thing was, they were everywhere. Even just a few years ago, when our daughter Hannah went to Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina, we bought her snow boots there, because they honestly had the best selection, all in one place. (I don't think those boots ever wore out.)

Major styling in 1967
I remember when I placed my first Sears catalog order. I had my own money from working at the grocery store, and it seemed like such a grownup thing to do. I ordered a zip up burgundy knit shirt (the zipper had a brass ring on its end) and a coordinating pair of knit pants in burgundy and gray plaid. I thought I was the bomb. I also ordered a very low-tech odometer for my bicycle, featuring a little strike pin which attached to a wheel spoke and advanced a small gear with every revolution, tracking miles using a somewhat approximate method which was close enough for those analog days.

Over the years, we purchased many staple items from Sears, some of which we still use. A green wheelbarrow which we bought in 1983, shortly after moving to Atlanta, still sits under our deck, and only recently did I retire my Craftsman lawnmower that I bought in 1993. It was still running, but after years of faithful service and many trips to the repair shop, I thought it best that it hand over its duties to a new Honda.

Things went well for many years, and then, something happened. The first clue I had was one day back in the late 80's when I went to buy tires for our Nissan Sentra station wagon. In those days, tires were made with one side whitewall and one side black, so that they could be mounted with either side facing out. After waiting almost two hours for the tires to be put on the wagon in a near-freezing Gwinnett Place Mall, I observed that the front tires were mounted with the black side out, but the rear tires had the white side out. Apparently, no one had noticed, but the car was returned to the garage, where after another period of near frostbite on my part, everything was made right.

Another thing I noticed some years ago was that the Craftsman tools, once the pride of every American home handyman, appeared to be made more cheaply. Handles which used to be sturdy were now covered in flimsy plastic, and the metal parts of the tools seemed to have been somewhat carelessly molded, with rough spots here and there. Craftsman hand tools always had a certain finish, but that no longer appeared to be the case. And on a summer day several years ago, I needed two tires for my Craftsman mower. I checked the model online to make sure they were in stock at our local North Point Mall Sears store, then headed over. I bought the tires and brought them back home, but they did not fit, even though the mower model number matched. Frustrated, I headed to Home Depot and bought a set of generic mower wheels, which fit fine. I returned the wheels to Sears and never went back to the lawn care department.

In 2009, fourteen years after Sears had vacated the property, the iconic Sears Tower in Chicago was finally renamed the Willis Tower. In 2014, the twelve-year agreement between Sears and Lands End was terminated. In 2017, Whirlpool ended its 101-year relationship with Sears. It's no doubt the end of an era. One thing cited as a potential issue by financial gurus is that for the last several years, Sears has reinvested only 1% of its profits into facility improvement and modernization, and in today's competitive brick and mortar retail market, that just isn't going to cut it. But who really knows all the factors that led to its demise?

Sears Crosstown in Memphis
Still, there are those grand old buildings, the ones erected early in the twentieth century in cities from coast to coast, the ones that are now being re-purposed as multi-use developments, full of shops, restaurants and upscale residential lodgings. The legacy of Sears will live on, regardless of how the company manages its holdings from this point forward. I'll bet a fair amount of money that Jeff Bezos, long before he founded that online shopping wonderland that we now call Amazon, purchased at least one pair of jeans from Sears in his youth. But I'll bet he never ordered checkered pants from the catalog. His loss, my friends.