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Simple Life

The Wish Book’s Final Chapter

Saying a fond farewell to Sears’ last remaining North Carolina store

By Jim Dodson

I learned that the last Sears department store in North Carolina honest-to-goodness brick and mortar store — was closing. Out of simple curiosity, and a dose of nostalgia, I went to pay my respects.

Truthfully, I hadn’t set foot in our local shopping center’s Sears since purchasing a new Craftsman lawnmower there more than five years ago. Happy to report, it’s been a fine mower.

Before that, my last visit to Sears was probably as a kid in the mid-1960s when, fueled by the firm’s famous “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, every kid I knew haunted the toy department at the downtown Sears retail store during the run-up weeks to the holiday. My first bicycle came from Sears, and was later parked outside the store the year my buddy Brad and I innocently drifted from the toy department into the adjacent lingerie department to stare in wonder at the display mannequins in all their undergarmented glory. As she escorted us to the exit doors, the unamused clerk with the pointy-blue eyeglasses refused to believe we were simply looking for presents for our moms.

That iconic downtown store, in any case, is now a giant hole in the ground, awaiting construction of a swanky office building as time, life and commerce march resolutely on.

Let’s pause and have a moment of fond reflection for — as Smithsonian recently described it — “The retail giant that taught America how to shop.”

Sears began modestly in 1887 when a former railway lumber salesman named Richard Sears moved to Chicago to partner with an Indiana watchmaker named Alvah Roebuck to launch a catalog selling jewelry and watches. Both men were still in their 20s. Six years later, they incorporated as Sears, Roebuck and Company, putting out a 500-page catalog that sold everything an American farmer or thrift-conscious housewife could ask for at a “fair price,” shipped directly to the customer.

In a nation where most Americans still resided on farms or in small towns, this marketing model exploded like a prairie fire, fueling the growth of urban factories. Even Henry Ford was said to have studied the Sears marketing model for making and selling his cars. The company’s first stock certificates were sold in 1906. “If you picked up a big enough chunk of stock when the company went public,” writes Investopedia, “you’d never have to work again.”

The first Sears retail store opened in Chicago in 1925. Four years later, on the eve of the Great Depression, the company was operating 300 stores around the country. By the mid-1950s, the number topped 700. By then, the corporation’s reliable Kenmore appliances, lifetime-guaranteed Craftsman tools, DieHard auto batteries and Allstate Insurance were beloved household names in America’s ballooning mass consumer culture. The stores followed the consumer’s migration from Main Street to shopping centers and, eventually, suburban malls.

Perhaps the company’s most enduring product line was introduced in 1908 when a Sears executive named Frank Kushel came up with the idea of kit houses sold through a specialty catalog called “The Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans,” offering 44 styles of mail-order homes ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. Generally shipped by rail, house packages provided everything down to screws and nails, including pre-cut and numbered framing lumber, flooring, doorknobs, wiring and plumbing.

Between 1908 and 1947,  an estimated 75,000 Sears kit houses — from Bungalow to English Cottage, Craftsman to Queen Anne — were shipped to Americans. Old House Journal notes that unknown Frank Kushel’s Modern Home Program wielded as much impact on the development of American architecture as famous contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sears boasted that its houses were built to last, explaining why thousands of them remain highly prized, lovingly restored jewels in older neighborhoods across America, relics of a bygone golden consumer age.

By the 1970s,  the firm owned the tallest skyscraper in the world in Chicago, was among the first to introduce home internet services, and jumped into the real estate, credit card and financial services businesses.

Perhaps it was too much for the gods of commerce to tolerate. Critics pointed to the company’s legal affrays over sex and race discrimination and a business model fueled by corporate hubris. 

In 1993, just shy of its 100th anniversary, Sears discontinued its famous catalog. Walmart was now the nation’s leading retailer, and Americans were suddenly buying things “online.” One year later, a former hedge fund guru named Jeff Bezos started up an online book service called Amazon, pretty much putting the finishing nail in the coffin of the historic brand. After 75 years on Wall Street, Home Depot took Sears’ place on the Dow Industrials. As the company’s sales steadily spiraled downward, a forced marriage with K-Mart in 2004 failed to stem the hemorrhage.

In January 2017, shortly before I purchased my Craftsman mower, the iconic tool brand was sold off to Stanley Black & Decker.

Less than a year later, in October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy.

Last December, the company emerged from bankruptcy but announced the liquidation and closing of all its remaining stores. According to reports, less than a dozen made it to this spring. Only one in North Carolina.

Which is why, out of some strange, old fashioned sense of brand loyalty or happy memories of lawn mowers and provocative lingerie mannequins, I felt a final farewell trip was in order.

Bright yellow “Going Out of Business” banners festooned the building. I wandered through looking at the remaining stock items. Fifty-percent bargains were everywhere. I looked at Kenmore refrigerators, top-line Samsung dishwashers and GE Elite ovens, all half-price.

I decided on a lightweight Craftsman toolbox to remember the place by, a steal at $27.

On my way out, I paused to chat with a clerk, Janice, who has worked for Sears for more than two decades. “It makes me really sad to think that Sears is going away for good,” she said. “Like millions of Americans, everything in my house as a young married woman came from Sears. I guess nothing lasts forever, does it?”

She surprised me with a sudden, feisty grin. “You know, I think if we’d only stuck with catalogs, by golly, we’d have beaten Amazon and still be going strong!”

I loved her company spirit. I wished her well.

Then I went home to mow my lawn.

Whenever the math of this world doesn’t quite add up — when the sad subtractions outnumber the hopeful additions, or vice versa — I find temporary comfort by mowing my lawn. Crazy, I know. But it briefly puts things in perspective.

Besides, my Craftsman mower never lets me down.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at