Sears, where America used to shop

It later gave me an odd case of melancholy, that first representation of fiscal adulthood.

The sad, but unsurprising, news that the Sears at Colonie Center in Albany County, NY would be closing in September 2017 made me sadder than I would have thought, given the fact that I can’t remember the last time I entered the building. Certainly, it was before Sears leased out part of its footprint to the Whole Foods chain in 2011 because I’ve never been to Whole Foods.

After I graduated from college in 1977, I had difficulty paying back my student loans, some low-paying jobs and a stretch of unemployment facilitating that. As a result, I didn’t get my first charge card until 1982. And that first card was from Sears.

I bought EVERYTHING from Sears. The first item I got was a clock-radio; it cost $12, I think. Somehow, it suffered some external damage- something melted the case – but it still worked. When I got married in 1999, my spouse insisted we toss it out, and I did, but it later gave me an odd case of melancholy, that first representation of fiscal adulthood.

Still, there were plenty other items that ended up in my various apartments: a television set that I had for over 20 years; a microwave or two; my first VCR; at least two bicycles; Craftman tools, of course; and countless other necessities, big and small. Most of my clothes came from there. I could find anything in that place better than most salespeople.

In fact, I even got a Christmas tree, on December 24, 1991, which I hauled home on a CDTA bus. I didn’t ask, and the driver said nothing.

Sidebar: Final JEOPARDY! November 10, 1998: Native New Englander seen here, modeling for his company’s catalog sometime before WWI. Two people said, Sears. I knew that was not possible; Sears was founded in Chicago, as I well knew. (The correct response was “Who was L.L. Bean?”, which I got.)

And since I was a good customer, Sears offered me the opportunity to get one of the first charge cards from this new entity that was going to try to compete with MasterCard and VISA. It was called Discover, and back in 1986, it wasn’t accepted in too many places besides Sears, though FantaCo, the comic book/mail order store I worked at was an early acceptor.

But eventually, that Sears store started cutting back some categories, moving things around as though people wouldn’t notice what was missing. The last time I know for sure that I went in there was around 2003, when I bought a power lawnmower I eventually returned – a rarity for me anywhere – because it kept clogging up.

And now, Sears nationwide is in serious trouble. Some analyst I read suggested that, given the Sears catalog’s once-dominant place in the American economy and psyche, the company was in the best position to evolve into what Amazon, in fact, did become, the monster of online retail.

Now I don’t even bother to read the weekly ads Sears sends me. And the latest closures also include the store in my home county, Broome (Johnson City, NY).

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

9 thoughts on “Sears, where America used to shop”

  1. And another American institution slides into the dustbin of history. I had forgotten Discover was a Sears initiative. I imagine we’ll be reflecting on Discover’s demise within the next decade, too.

  2. It seems to be the way of the world that much-loved stores chains just can’t compete with the likes of Amazon. I felt a similar pang when Woolworth’s vanished from our high street even though I hadn’t been in there for an age.

    On a separate note, the link to your site has disappeared from my Regular Reads sidebar and I’m not quite sure why. Your RSS feed should flag up new posts but isn’t working. I need to check it out!

  3. I think there were two types of people back then…Sears people and Macy’s people. I was a Macy’s person, but I married a Sears guy. We managed to make it work, going on 37 years. lol. But now, at our older and wiser age, we are Goodwill/thrift store/yard sale people. We rarely buy new stuff anymore. In fact I’m a minimalist, or at least I try very hard to be one, so I don’t buy much besides groceries or plants these days.

  4. Throwback #1: A friend once told me he thought of Sears as being like Gum, the big Moscow department store back in the 70’s. Dull and gray and nothing fashionable. But it all lasts forever.

    Throwback #2: Working menswear at Burdine’s in Fort Lauderdale I sold several items to a young man, and as I took the information to open a Burdine’s charge account it turned out his employer was Sears. I said we were glad to have him as a customer but doesn’t Sears give an employee discount. He said they did, but he wouldn’t be seen in their “crappy” clothes.

  5. We’re down to two. (Used to be four.) We never had more than one or two K marts.

    And yes, I got my first VCR from Sears. (Rebadged Sanyo Beta.)

  6. I used to shop at Sears all the time because it had solid quality and fair prices, unlike the other available stores are the time that lacked one or both (although, even as a teenager in the early 1970s I thought naming a dishwasher brand “Lady Kenmore” was a terrible idea).

    But I think it’s unfair to blame Amazon alone for Sears’ decline (which some do, though you certainly didn’t). First, there’s Wal-Mart, that did so much to wipe out local retailing everywhere it went, and decades before Amazon began and then became a behemoth. And Sears itself sowed the seeds of its own death, not just by failing to innovate, but also by failing to merely keep up: Target raised its game, and so did Wal-Mart (though mainly by making their stores more attractive). Sears mainly stayed still or moved at a glacial pace, similar to what helped kill off Montgomery Ward (another chain that suffered because of a revitalised Target).

    My point is that it’s fashionable to blame Amazon for the problems that US retailers have, but they’re often not as big a factor as other ones have been, including the declining retailer itself. The death of bookstores, however, IS probably something that can be blamed mostly on Amazon…

  7. I remember when Kenmore was my parents’ go-to appliance brand, because they were well built and Sears tended to stand behind them. (I still have a Kenmore sewing machine – a mid 70s model, those things were built like tanks). Also for years our eyeglasses came from their optical center….

    I think Sears started to cheap out some time in the early to mid 90s, and Kenmore no longer was a trustworthy brand. That’s part of what hurt Sears, at least in my perception. (Also, I am still unhappy with them for buying up Land’s End and changing it).

    I think a lot of the decline in retail is sort of related to the “bad money drives out good” idea – cheap crappily made stuff seems to have more mass appeal than more expensive but better-made stuff

    I also wonder if we’re losing the “great middle” in the US – that instead of having Nordstrom’s/Nieman-Marcus, and Sears/Penney’s, and then wal-mart/dollar stores, we’re headed to a future where a very small subset of the population gets to shop at the ultra-high-end places, and everyone else has the discount stores with poor service and goods of questionable quality.

    I dunno. I have lots of feelings about this, some of them related to living in an area that is economically depressed so we pretty much have wal-mart and dollar stores….

    I also remember when Discover got started up; I remember my dad being excited for one of the first “cash back” credit cards, and yes, I remember how few places originally took it.

  8. I remember a trip through Delaware which brought me past the issuing bank for Discover: it’s now called, logically, Discover Bank, but it was originally a small-town bank called Greenwood Trust Company. (And I do mean small: Greenwood, Delaware has maybe a thousand people.)

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