The demise of Sears – Robin Kirk

Robin Kirk
Robin Kirk

Reports of the demise of Sears Roebuck company have me nostalgic – and a little worried for the employees who may lose their jobs.

As a child, the arrival of the Sears Christmas Wish Book signaled the true start of the season. Sears conveniently organized toys according to age, with the tantalizing teen toys – racing bikes, trampolines, skateboards – to look forward to at the end.

I’m not alone in missing the Wishbook. Dozens of Internet sites collect the pages, time capsules that also reflect American racial and gender practices of the times.

A Suzy Homemaker oven was one wish my grandparents granted with the help of this Illinois-based company. As an adult, I needed to trim the costs of a kitchen renovation. A Sears appliance salesman at Northgate Mall guided me, making sure I got a cut-rate floor model with a single ding in the side.

It wouldn’t show, he promised. That dishwasher hums near me as I write.

Kit homes

If you think Ikea products are a challenge, consider the heyday of the Sears kit home. Sold in the early 20th century, each kit contained upwards of 30,000 pieces, with instructions meant to be used by any layman. Along with companies like Montgomery Ward, Aladdin and Harris Brothers, Sears housed tens of thousands of American families.

I own an Aladdin bungalow (“The Plaza” for the nosy). In 1925, Samuel R. Greene and his wife, Adeline, bought the plans, likely from Aladdin’s Wilmington outlet. Greene worked for the East Durham Lumber Company, so had access to excellent materials that contractors who work on my home still marvel at. The family completed the bungalow in 1925. At the beginning of the Depression, they added an in-law apartment upstairs.

I figured out that the apartment came later because of my bedroom closet. Most of the area is taken up by what would have been the original attic stairs. The risers, never used, now lead to the underside of the upstairs floor. If I ever sell this house – not bloody likely, mind you – whoever buys it will have to find my hidden, useless stairs as charming as I do.

From somewhere, I acquired the Aladdin sales brochure that corresponds to my house plan. On paper, the rooms are laid out exactly as they were built. I’ve sleepwalked the rooms and the feeling was not unlike tracing the printed lines with my finger. A house is something animate, but a home is as much spiritual as physical.

The Sears and Aladdin designs sampled many styles and included new technology like central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity. My furnace is original to the house, a gray behemoth that pipes steam through old-fashioned iron radiators. The tick as the radiators warm in the fall is one of the loveliest sounds I know.

Buying a house in a kit, with the assumption that anyone can put it together, seems unthinkable now. In our speeded up, have it immediately culture, even buying a vacuum cleaner that has to have a nozzle inserted seems like a burden.

Becoming obsolete

The culture passed by kit homes. Now, Sears itself is becoming obsolete. Nation-wide, brick and mortar chains are falling to online sellers just as local stores fell to Sears in their day. Economist track how U.S. retail jobs are plummeting. For the Sears employee, the future looks grim.

At Northgate, Macy’s is closed. Some space has been leased to Measurement Inc., a Durham-based educational testing company. In an announcement, a spokesperson said they will be locating seasonal employees there. It likely won’t be long before this family-owned mall has to find yet another tenant to take the Sears space – and its workers may not have better options than the seasonal work that goes into scoring tests.

It’s ironic and not a little cruel, to have the jobs that are steps to a middle-class life vanish with the only replacement being scoring for educations few can actually afford without help.

But I’d be a hypocrite if I claimed to shop at Sears. These days, I generally only buy my teen’s jeans there (they have them long and skinny). The store smells a little off, the new rubber of the first-floor lawnmowers mixed with the slightly musty odor of clothing gathering dust. Nothing is particularly fashionable or pretty. Sears has always sold serviceable – along with kit homes, clothing, tools, appliances, pots, and shoes that work.

Will our burgeoning hipster economy take up the slack? Are there enough bar back, artisanal cheese and spec design jobs to replace what we’re losing in big retail? I hope that, instead of another diagnostic imagining clinic or condo development, something that reflects Sears’ legacy of serviceable goes into Northgate, should the company leave.

If the zombie apocalypse ever comes, I’d take a shuttered Sears over a pricey eatery any day.

Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at robinkirk13@gmail.com