By Steve Stajich
Nostalgia is a drug used frequently by writers. Much of writing, not to be confused with typing, comes into being from the memory banks of the writer. But as a drug, nostalgia has its side effects. Weariness of heart, crying over already spilled milk, and pulling muscles as one attempts to hang on to the past when the present has clearly replaced it.
A March 23 article in the LA Times business section revealed that even Sears doesn’t fully believe in Sears’s brick and mortar retail stores anymore. The CFO of the parent company that also owns Kmart stores stated that it had warned regulators “substantial doubt exists” that Sears’s stores could keep their doors open, even though they are fighting right up to the end to save “a viable business.” The warning caused the company’s stock to plunge 12.3 percent.
That only provides a kind of moody preamble to what I experienced this week as I spent about an hour inside downtown Santa Monica’s Sears store at 4th and Colorado. Plastered everywhere were bright yellow and red signs blaring “Store Closing – 25 to 75 percent off!”
Inside, well, if there is such a thing as a department store ghost town this was it. It would be one thing to confront empty shelves and even mannequins stripped of their clothing. To discover that the shelves and the mannequins themselves were for sale cut me deeper. I learned from two employees pulling the shelving hardware from a display wall that our Santa Monica Sears would close around the middle of April.
Somewhere online there is a collection of photos that shows nothing but closed stores and failed shopping malls with their interiors in decay. Those photos are a bit more ominous than the current state of our downtown Sears store, but experiencing both together paints a picture of brick and mortar retail currently in a coma if not a dirt nap.
Sears began in 1886 as a mail order catalogue, but it began opening retail locations in 1925. In 2005 the Kmart chain bought Sears and the whole thing became Sears Holdings. Impressively, if you go back and count the number of economic recessions, Sears was the largest retailer in America until October of 1989. That’s when they got beat by Walmart. (Cue trumpet player: taps.) By one account, it’s still the fifth-largest American department store as of 2013, but let me ask you: When’s the last time you were in a “department store”?
Which brings me back to my walk through of our Sears in Santa Monica. A lot of the discount merchandise still in the building spoke to the way brick and mortar retail depends on the Christmas holidays for a major chunk of their sales. At amazing prices were such items as “Dory” and “Frozen” gift boxes containing bath gel and body spray. Nearby was a package shaped to look like a tool box filled with pretzels and nuts and offered as “The Craftsman Tool Box of Snacks.”
But big stuff was on deep discount as well. Kenmore washers and dryers were 25 percent off and a couple wandering the rows of floor models seemed almost ready to close on a deal, despite a warning sign to all who dared to walk the Sears haunted house that they should “Shop Wisely: All Sales are Final.” A guy buying deeply discounted tools kept pulling more things off the rack as a clerk rang up his Craftsman bench top sander and grinder. I took these events as proof that the brands Sears had spent decades building – Kenmore, Craftsman, Die Hard – still carried some weight with consumers. Even if that “Tool Box of Snacks” was way past its freshness date, there was a pair of Die Hard work boots that I almost took home, at the last moment remembering that I rarely do any work.
It was at this point that my findings became suspect because walking through Santa Monica’s dying Sears store I was intoxicated by the drug of nostalgia. As a kid, I went with my family to the Bay Shore Shopping Center (remember “shopping centers?”) in Milwaukee where Sears was the biggest and best thing there. In the appliance department, a vacuum cleaner hose was pointed upward and supported a rotating beach ball on its powerful blast of reversed suction. Open the refrigerator floor models and there were rubber bottles of milk and plastic meat. You know, to show folks how a refrigerator works. The store was big and sprawling, the sales force attentive and persuasive.
At an even larger North Milwaukee Sears, there was often so much traffic in the parking lot that a man sat and looked out a window and through a PA system directed cars to empty parking spaces. “Green Chevy wagon, aisle 14 F.” For longer than you’d think, I thought that was the greatest job ever. But I was missing the bigger picture: A retail store that was so popular and, yes, trusted by consumers that it needed an air traffic controller in its parking lot. Alas, no longer. Long ago Sears had a slogan to highlight its clothing and other non-tool and appliance merchandise: “Come see the softer side of Sears.” There’s nothing more vulnerable-looking than a closing three-story department store lying on its side, gasping, what little is left marked way down. Still, I am already nostalgic for the Santa Monica Sears.