Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sears Never Grew Up

Remember Sears?

"Sears."  You know - the department store?

When I was a kid, living on the quaint, quiet north shore of Oneida Lake in central New York State, a trip to Sears down in suburban Syracuse was sheer excitement for me.  I remember it was an odd, mansard-roofed concoction of a box sitting in a prime spot right alongside Route 81, which is now an Interstate highway.  Oddly enough, the developers of this Sears store didn't build any sort of direct access from the divided highway, meaning my parents had to follow a circuitous route from the freeway to its parking lot.

But that didn't matter to me - the extra drive simply helped build my excitement and anticipation!

We'd usually park at the far end where the garden stuff - or, this being suburban Syracuse, the snow blowers and shovels - would be displayed.  Right next to the bags of fertilizer and rock salt for one's driveway and sidewalk sat the toy department, and what a department it was!  Several aisles of sheer heaven.  It's where I discovered my first true love:  those 1:25 scale plastic model car kits.  When I purchased my very own 1975 Chevrolet Caprice 2-door coupe model, I didn't want to paint it, for fear I'd choose the wrong color, I prized that toy so.

I don't know what it says about me, but I could rattle off several of the other 1:25 scale model kits that I purchased all those years ago.  That's how much that Sears store near Syracuse meant to me.  It was only one level, but to me, it had everything a person could possibly need for a full life of consumerism.

Just down the wide aisle of white linoleum tile from the toy department sat an olive green dishwasher, the main display for the kitchen appliance department.  That dishwasher was situated facing the aisle, with a glass front, and it was always on, so passers-by could witness its power-cleaning action.  I remember being amazed that no water ever leaked out of that dishwasher, and regularly bugging my parents to buy one.  We lived in a century-old farmhouse with a fairly small kitchen and old pipes that probably wouldn't have enjoyed having to sustain a luxury like an automatic dishwasher.  But boy, watching that water splash about inside that olive-green box at Sears sure convinced me we were missing out on something special.

Did my parents ever purchase anything there for themselves?  I honestly can't recall, because I'd usually head straight for the toy department and occupy myself there for most of the time we were in Sears.  Well, it was either the toy department, or the clothing department for boys.  That was down at the far end of the wide, white-tiled walkway, in a corner of the store that was all dark brown and plastic wood.  Still, it smacked of grandeur to me, with its child-sized mirrors and individual dressing rooms, and all of that grown-up 1970's Oak Room pastiche.  Back then, parents and their little boys used to dress up for church, and I remember the miniature clip-on polyester ties my Mom would buy for me.  One of those ties was brown with blue, orange, and green stripes.  You wouldn't catch me wearing anything like that today, but back then, I was stylin'!

Then one day, when we visited Sears, the glass windows near the boy's department were all boarded up, and outside, the parking lot was being bulldozed.  Mom said she'd learned from a sales clerk that something called a "mall" was being added to the Sears store.

A "mall?"  What's that?  They're not closing this Sears, are they?  I think I panicked a little at the possibility.

Turns out, building shopping malls had become all the rage in the middle of the 1970's, and in the Syracuse area, a number of them got built within rapid-fire succession of each other.  Central New York was sprouting malls like mushrooms after a rainstorm.  My beloved Sears store soon became the anchor tenant of Penn-Can Mall, a name that nobody has been able to explain.  At one time, people thought it had something to do with some business connection with Pennsylvania and Canada.

Well... New York stores, even with the state's high taxes, do attract a lot of Canadian shoppers, whose taxes and prices are even higher on their side of the border.

Today, however, like many malls around the country, Penn-Can is no more.  In fact, the Sears store closed before the mall did.  Eventually, what had been the Sears building was demolished, and the old mall became an indoor car dealership, which actually is a clever re-use of a building in a particularly weather-challenged part of the country.

And it also seems fitting to me, considering how I loved to browse the selection of plastic model cars at that grand old Sears store.

We moved from the Syracuse area to Texas a few years after Penn-Can Mall opened, and with two levels, the Sears store here in Arlington dwarfed my old favorite in size.  Considering the shopper I'd become, you'd have thought a two-level Sears would be double the excitement for me, but hey - I was growing up, and my tastes were changing.  Besides, they never kept the toy department in the same place at this Arlington Sears, and it would shrink drastically in size between Christmas shopping seasons.  What was up with that?  Weren't toys important every week of the year?

Suffice it to say, Sears soon lost its appeal for me.  Mom and Dad kept buying appliances, furniture, and even televisions at Sears, but by now, I was a teenager, and I new cheap, tacky clothing when I saw it.  And those plastic models?  We discovered that we'd moved to a neighborhood with a fantastic hobby store, Hobby Hub, just down the street, and their selection was way better than Sears' ever was.  A few years ago, I discovered some old unbuilt models still in their flimsy boxes that I'd purchased at Hobby Hub years and years ago - and had forgotten about.

I don't think boys build those plastic models anymore.  My four nephews were never interested in them.  I think I lost interest in them once and for all after I learned to drive, and could spend my time with the real thing, instead of 1:25 scale plastic mock-ups.

And Sears?  Goodness... I can't remember the last time I was inside one.  Oh, yes I do - I think it was when my Mom was looking for a new washing machine.  And that's been a while ago.

Every now and then, over the years, I've heard stories in the news about how bad Sears had gotten in terms of its merchandise and even the condition of its stores.  Apparently, a lot of Americans have been just like me - we've graduated from Sears, tired of its polyester clothing, and grown out of the idea that it was the best place to buy just about anything.  I understand that Kenmore and Craftsman products - two of Sears' big brands - are made by third parties now, and sold under other brand names as well.

Retail experts point their accusing fingers at corporate management that seems bent on running the storied store into the ground.  And while that's probably the case, since other retailers have come along and stolen Sears' thunder without a fight, the demise of the once-great retailer has been building steam for longer than the current ownership group has been in charge.

Sears started out as a mail-order business, and I can still recall waiting for the annual Christmas catalog to come in the mail, and then pouring over its toy section for weeks with my brother, until the pages were worn and frayed.  It would be tempting for a company that built so much of its reputation on printed catalogs to blame the Internet for costing it customers, but Sears stopped publishing its main catalog in 1993.

And it hasn't been able to keep its mojo since.  The place that provided me with such simple happiness in my childhood seems to have about as good a chance of resurrecting itself as my childhood does.  American retailing has changed so much over the decades, practically the only stores that manage to keep their brands alive are luxury ones.  Woolworth's is gone, along with Mervyn's, Montgomery Ward, and countless regional low-price chains.  Nowadays, Target and Wal Mart are the principle players in Sears' old segment, but perhaps for them to survive longer than the century Sears managed to, they'll have to learn from Sears' many mistakes and missed opportunities.

Sometimes I think I would like to have my childhood back, since in my memory, that time was a lot less complicated, and opportunities seemed so much more plentiful.  But, even though sometimes it doesn't seem like it, I have matured, and learned, and progressed since then.

Too bad Sears didn't.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your feedback!