For Americans of a certain age, watching Sears —- or Sears, Roebuck as our parents referred to it — fade away into bankruptcy is like watching the painful decline of a favorite relative. Sears was the Amazon of an earlier era, where you could buy almost anything at an affordable price. But it also was part of a shared experience of family and friends, taken for a granted as a piece of the fabric of so many communities.
A few Sears memories from members of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board:
It was 54 years ago, and I would have been in kindergarten, except that my little rural school in Illinois didn’t have one. My grandmother had recently died, and all of her adult children, including my mother, were cleaning out her house after the funeral. They were sad and they wanted the young cousins out from underfoot. So I told two of them I had a surprise in my Dad’s Dodge truck parked out in the gravel. When we opened the truck’s door, I pulled out the Sears catalog and showed them with delight. I carried it pretty much everywhere. But they were underwhelmed. I guess they didn’t understand the sheer joy of just looking at the “Wish Book,” a Sears catalog that contained everything a little boy could possibly dream of. I couldn’t even read yet, but I thumbed through it so often that the thin paper fanned out and the catalog wouldn’t lay flat, so I took to putting the heaviest volumes of the World Book encyclopedia on it to press it down. It was a special day when the Christmas edition of the Wish Book came in the mail. My parents had persuaded me that Santa had the same toys as Sears and that he had a budget. When I was in second grade, I used my parents’ massive ancient adding machine — it had a huge handle that you pulled to print the total — to doublecheck my math to make sure my Christmas list came in under Santa’s budget, which I think was $25, if that. Sears had it all: the Crosman 760 pump-action pellet gun that I got when I was a little older (varmints beware!); the black canvas rubber-gum sole track shoes with white stripes that you needed if you wanted to be the fastest fifth-grader on the Centerville elementary playground; the ultracool Farah plaid, bell bottom slacks (you had to be there). All you had to do was fill out the order form, enclose a check and send it off. In a week or two, the neat stuff came via USPS to the farm at Rural Route 1, Box 207. Sears was the Amazon of its day, providing any and everything to people anywhere. But then a few more years passed, and it was cool to wear Levis, which Sears didn’t have, rather than its store-brand Toughskins jeans. And we wanted Adidas gym shoes, not Sears anymore. Though Sears soon built Chicago’s Sears Tower — everyone still calls it that — the mail-order store had lost a bit of its magic.
Needed something, you went to Sears. For a grade-schooler in Tampa in the ’70s, that meant the Sears on Hillsborough Avenue, around the corner from my grandparents' house on Flora Vista in Seminole Heights. It was big, busy and clean, with its W-shaped roof, huge storefront windows and palm trees that seemed to line the parking lot for miles. Going to Sears was a big deal. You saw people and behaved. It was where my grandmother bought us shoes for the first day of Catholic school. Where my grandfather, who worked for the railroad, bought his work pants and his tires. Sears even carried my great-grandmother's favorite housecoats. Mémère liked the pockets. They were the only ones deep enough to carry her snuff.
Sears opened a new store a few years later, at University Square Mall, on Fowler Avenue. That store was the go-to for a growing family in Temple Terrace. Our sheets and towels came from Sears. Sears sold us our curtains and the rods they hung on. My old man had a Sears charge card, like everybody else, and like everybody else, used it to buy the big stuff — refrigerators, washers, dryers. From swing sets to lawn mowers, Sears was on full display in my neighborhood every Saturday. At Christmas, my brother and sisters would pick through the catalog to find a present for mom, and bend back the pages of toys we wanted under the tree. Then, who knows when, out of nowhere, it all ended, long before Sears began closing its doors.
I was 7 years old when Sears opened in 1966 in what had been a field on a two-lane highway in southern Indiana. The attached Green Tree Mall came along two years later, but Sears had become our Saturday night family entertainment. We could buy a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts and bounce the basketballs. Eye the toys with my little brother and the riding lawn mowers with my dad. See the neighbors out doing the same thing.
Sears is where we bought Kenmore washers and dryers. DieHard batteries. Craftsman wrenches. Bicycles. It’s where we put the occasional sweater on layaway and went with mom to pay the minimum amount on the charge card.
There was a 1968 Sears Wish Book for sale on eBay the other day for $99.99, and I swear I remember the cover. Like so many kids, my Christmas list came from those catalogues. First on my list: Hard-cover books from the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick series. Great Quarterbacks of the NFL. Great Running Backs of the NFL. Strange But True Football Stories. I’ve still got the first dozen or so books in my closet.
Last story: We needed a new riding lawn mower around the summer of 1971. Dad picked out a red mini tractor at Sears, with a 7 horsepower engine and headlights. My brother and I went with Mom to buy it, but she bought a smaller one. I called Dad at work to alert him. He and I went to Sears and switched back to the more expensive red one. In hindsight, I know Mom thought we couldn’t afford it. We still had that lawn mower when dad died 20 years later. And my own Craftsman push mower has some miles left on it.
I was in that stretch of my 20s when multiple friends were getting married every year, which meant multiple bridal showers. I was working at the newspaper in Lexington, Ky., and when a friend there got engaged, a shower invitation soon arrived. She had registered at one of the typical department stores that carries fine china and elegant linens. But to get her groom in on the fun, they’d also registered at Sears. They chose a handsome set of Craftsman tools, some yard implements, hardware for the grill and an ax. No, really, an ax.
Spotting it on the registry, I decided I had purchased enough Noritake gravy boats and Egyptian cotton sheet sets for a while and headed to Sears. I could claim I liked the practicality of their Sears selections, but really I was drawn to the rebelliousness of going to a dainty bridal shower channeling Paul Bunyan over Martha Stewart. There were some slightly horrified laughs when the bride-to-be unwrapped my gift, the most Medieval-looking of any she received. But hey, I tied a pretty bow around the long wood handle, just below the thick steel blade.