Melancholy Retail: Where America Shopped

“Every cloud must have a silver lining
Just wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too”¹

 

Detroit Sears store at Grand River and Oakman. My dad worked at this location in the 1950s and 1960s.
Source: Wayne State University Libraries

On a long drive last week, I listened to an NPR story about the uphill battle for survival that the Sears department store is facing. The odds of it succeeding are long. There is speculation that the company’s current management is purposely dragging out its demise so that it can continue to sell off valuable assets before eventually closing all the stores for good. It reminds me of a corporate version of the Bataan Death March.

The decline of Sears is sad for me because I have so many fond memories of the place from my childhood. Even as I relentlessly mocked it sometime around the mid-eighties, it was mostly out of love and affection for its former place in my life. I had a nonsensical belief that I alone was allowed to tell Sears jokes because I was as much Sears as Italians are Italians, Poles are Poles, Irish are Irish, etc.

Sears & Roebuck was a big deal to my family. My father worked there starting in the early 1950s selling shoes, and eventually became a manager of the shoe department at Detroit’s Grand River store. For a brief period he was groomed to be an executive and sent on trips to its headquarters in Chicago for meetings.

He never really made it as an executive, though. Dad pissed off upper management one too many times for not marching in lockstep with the other gray flannel suits. He just wasn’t boardroom material. Family lore has it that he ultimately told management to “stuff it” in favor of going back to the friendlier confines of the sales floor. By the time I was a toddler in the early 1960s, he was transferred to their Lincoln Park store selling TV’s, radios, and stereos.

He retired at age 55 sometime in the mid seventies. Any resemblance to certain bloggers, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Of course, as an adult I now understand that Dad had been demoted. His career as an executive was curtailed because of his mouth. The many versions of whitewashed stories we were repeatedly told over the years made him out to be Dilbert long before Scott Adams invented the comic character. Whatever disappointments Dad may have harbored about his Sears career, they were discreetly kept under wraps in favor of spinning yet another yarn about how he once stuck it to the corporate Man. Indeed, those stories were hilarious.

In spite of his thoughts about the company’s management, though, my dad believed in Sears as an institution which catered to the public at large. He thought highly of his colleagues and even more so for the products they sold.

We were a Sears family. It was represented everywhere in our house by the clothes that hung in our closets, the shoes on our feet, the clock radios next to our beds, the appliances in our kitchen, the tools on Dad’s workbench (including the workbench itself), and all the outdoor gear such as hoses, lawn chairs, lawn mowers, and grills. The cars we owned were all Chevy’s, Fords, Dodges, etc., but you can be damn sure they had Diehard batteries in them. And, of course, they were insured by Allstate.

Like so many other homes of that era, ours was a microcosm of the post-war American experience for the middle class. This was still the period when the phrase “Made in Japan” was said in jest. Chinese manufacturing hadn’t yet hit the U.S. radar. American-made products were omnipresent, and Sears was where America shopped.

Stepping inside a Sears store was definitely fun for a pre-teen in the mid-sixties. Probably for the adults too. You entered an environment where the aroma of freshly popped popcorn, chocolates, and warm nuts hit your senses immediately. Parents may have been forcing you to try on snowsuits, but your mind was only on getting them to take you to those goodies before exiting to the parking lot. If you were really lucky in those pre-Toys-R-Us days, you might even manage to somehow get ten minutes of browsing in at what was then considered to be a pretty respectable toy department.

Sales staff worked strictly in the departments for which they had been hired. This was important because it made them experts on the merchandise being sold. Don’t see the item you were hoping to find? No problem, they would nearly always go in the backroom and look for it. And while all of this was happening, those unusual store chimes were paging managers in a secret code that only employees understood (for some inane reason, my father never explained it to us).

The cherry on top of the shopping sundae for this Sears family of mine is that Dad was entitled to an employee discount. It mattered not if the item was on sale, employees still received a flat 15% discount on clothing items and 10% on everything else. This cut both ways, however. As I reached my early teens, my desire for name brand clothes instead of the proprietary Sears brands started to materialize. A test of wills commenced over whether I could have Levi’s jeans purchased at another store, or continue to wear the Sears Toughskins I had worn since grade school. The compromise that was ostensibly offered– that I “graduate” to the more expensive Sears Roebucks jeans went over like a lead balloon.

It took me till age 14 before I finally got my first pair of Levi’s. I remember it being an absolute nightmare having to wear those damn Toughskins to school.

Eventually after my dad retired, he finally eased up on the requirement that we had to first consider Sears before other retailers. Not working there everyday eventually gave him a healthy separation.

The country was also changing, with national department store chains having less of a hold on consumers. Where stores like Sears and Montgomery Wards might have once offered a sense of comfort and security to consumers, other retailers and brands were becoming more creative. When beer of all things was being sold as a positive lifestyle choice, that probably didn’t fare well for stodgy old Sears and Roebuck.

As my siblings and I began to marry and have homes of our own, we still took advantage of Dad’s discount, shockingly still offered to retirees as late as the early 2000’s. All of us at one point or another used him to purchase big-ticket appliances such as refrigerators or washers and dryers for that additional 10% off, and then we would immediately pay him back after we left the store. The company later eliminated the discount, or Dad was simply too old and frail to help us anymore. I can’t recall which happened first.

By now we all pretty much know the current condition of their stores. A hilarious Family Guy parody lampooned what it’s like to actually walk into a Sears now. It’s not quite like that, but it’s an awfully depressing experience all the same. Shelves are empty, cash registers are placed in center aisles away from each department, and you’re lucky to find an employee who has much knowledge about a particular item. There is a feeling of doom and finality. This company is breathing its last breath.

It’s sad only when I think about it, and I really don’t think about Sears much anymore. Still, the NPR report did make think about my dad and how disappointed he’d be to see what’s happened to his former employer. But at least I have those wonderful whitewashed old stories of his.

Until next time…

¹ My Melancholy Baby, songwriters: E. Burnett / G. Norton, 1912.