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One last shift: After 45 years together, a Kmart cashier and her store are gone

Marty "Kmarty" Russell, 66, is kissed on the head by Anita Burns, 75, while Kmart human resources manager Shirley St. Onge looks on Sunday during Russell's last day working at Kmart near U.S. 19 in Clearwater. Burns retired from Kmart last year after working with Russell in the store's garden center for more than 16 years. Russell began working at the store when it opened nearly 45 years ago. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES   |   Times]
Marty "Kmarty" Russell, 66, is kissed on the head by Anita Burns, 75, while Kmart human resources manager Shirley St. Onge looks on Sunday during Russell's last day working at Kmart near U.S. 19 in Clearwater. Burns retired from Kmart last year after working with Russell in the store's garden center for more than 16 years. Russell began working at the store when it opened nearly 45 years ago. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]
Published Jan. 28, 2018

CLEARWATER — The store hadn't opened yet, but Marty Russell was in the break room eating a glazed doughnut, sipping coffee, glancing at the clock.

The human resources manager popped in, and Russell asked if she needed help.

"No," the manager, Shirley St. Onge, told her. "You'll sit here until 9."

Since the Kmart at U.S. 19 and State Road 580 opened almost 45 years ago, Russell, 66, arrived at the break room at least an hour early for every one of her shifts as a cashier. Her coworkers had prepared for this, the art of surprising a woman who was always there.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Kmart in Clearwater to close after holiday shopping season

So Russell waited. She picked up her decades-old red lunchbox and put it on a shelf.

"Hopefully they won't sell that," she said.

After all, almost everything was marked down or gone by Sunday, the last day before the Kmart closed for good. The merchandise, yes — shelves of patterned socks, stacks of backyard trampolines, leftover pre-decorated Christmas trees — but also the chairs in the break room ($10 to $15), the drink coolers at the front of the store (SOLD to a man named Gerald) and the fridge where the workers stowed their lunches.

"EVERYTHING MUST GO!" screamed the yellow signs scattered around the remaining merchandise, pushed together in a quadrant surrounded by a vast space of fluorescent lights reflecting off worn linoleum floors.

But at least one fixture remained: Russell, who had been there since the day in August 1973 when the store opened with the snip of yellow ribbon. She started at about $3 an hour working in the deli, back when the Kmart had a deli, and an auto shop, and an electronics section stocked with heavy TVs and bulky stereos.

Store manager Rich Mullen had done the math. At an average of 475 transactions per register per week, Russell had served more than a million customers. The longevity had earned her a nickname: "KMarty."

"She's a fixture, but she's not for sale," said Chris Cox, a regular customer and for former loss prevention officer for Kmart.

He and a couple dozen former employees and regulars had gathered Sunday morning to wish their friend well with a surprise celebration.

But she didn't know that yet as she made her way across the store to her register. A package of tissues poked out of her light blue sweater, just in case.

• • •

Russell moved to Dunedin from Chicago with her family when she was 20, and Pinellas County was still packed with orange groves. She worked in the cafeteria of a retirement community for a year before her sister suggested she apply to the new department store opening.

Kmart was the only one at the time, she said. No Lowe's next door, no Walmart Supercenter south on U.S. 19, no behemoth Westfield Countryside Mall across the road.

"Things were a whole lot different," she said.

Russell's stint making sandwiches didn't last long before she moved to the garden center as a cashier, where she would stay for decades. The first years were filled with staff breakfasts and holiday parties, but they dried up as company purse strings tightened, she said.

Still, the people kept it interesting. She grew close to coworkers, one of whom introduced her to her husband, David, through a blind date. She got to know regular customers over generations, watching their kids grow to have their own.

But there were also the ones who made fun of her, or lied about prices, or couldn't keep control of their rambunctious children. She thought about quitting once, years ago, after a particularly rough day.

"You get one customer who starts the whole thing rolling," she said. "But I thought, 'No. I'm not going to let it get me.'"

She had a pension and a 401k with the job. And the pay was enough. By the end, she was making $10.05 an hour.

RELATED: Sears closing another 20 stores

Her resilience isn't much different from her employer's. The store has hung on through several rounds of nationwide closures since Kmart filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Around that time, there were 27 stores in the Tampa Bay area. With the shuttering of the Clearwater store, there are three.

Russell was shocked when she first found out about the closing in November, she said. Her nerves took over as customers kept offering their condolences, asking what was next.

She knew she'd continue running a few booths at the Oldsmar Flea Market with her husband, she said.

But beyond that, "I don't know how I'm going to spend my days yet."

• • •

Russell had rung up half a dozen customers Sunday when St. Onge's voice came over the speakers.

"We're here to celebrate Marty for her retirement from 44 years of service," St. Onge said. "I am sure within the company, there are few stores that can boast about an associate that has opened and closed a store … On this day, January, 28, 2018, we declare it 'Kmarty Day.'"

Russell beamed as Mullen, the store manager, brought her a cart full of gifts: framed certificates, a plaque, a printout of the store's original floor plan tied with a yellow ribbon.

They brought a vanilla-iced cake to the break room, where Russell took turns taking thank-you phone calls from Kmart managers and executives. After the last one, a tear slid down her cheek.

"You okay to go out there?" St. Onge asked.

She was. Soon, she was back at the register. She was ringing up a few Christmas decorations about 1:30 p.m. when a manager said she could go home early.

So she pushed a cart to the break room. She put her trusty red lunchbox, not for sale, inside next to a chunk of cake. And she made her way across the store one more time.

Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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