Saturday. 9:30 a.m. Sears' parking lot.
Like a docked container ship, the venerable store fills the block between State and Main along 800 South. The empty lot is a fishbone pattern of painted lines and Rorschach oil stains. Memories stir. In the mid-1960s, I often parked in the lot and walked across 800 South to Grogan's Saloon. It was a gritty college bar where over-amped local bands played "Louie, Louie" in every set. Like The Crow's Nest, La Hacienda and the other college beer bars back then, Grogan's was haunted by the vice squad. The woman I married got her comeuppance for showing them a fake ID one night.
The Sears Auto Center is on the west side of the big, windowless building. I bought new shock absorbers there before driving 2,000 miles to Fort Belvoir to serve as an involuntary soldier in 1968, the year of North Vietnam's unforeseen Tet Offensive. The Army soon sent me to a remote base in Africa where my lifeline and fashion guide was the 2-inch-thick Sears mail-order catalog (the same one that sold 70,000 house kits in the first half of the 20th century.)
Returning to Utah in 1973, I went to Sears to buy a feeler gauge and point file so I could tune my Volkswagen's engine. I didn't know what either tool was, but a hippie book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, dictated that I learn to use them. My next purchase at the State Street store was a Kenmore washing machine. It was necessitated by the ammoniac bucket of cloth diapers in the bathroom that always seemed about to overflow.
The diaper-soiler has grown up, married and moved to California. Point files are as anachronistic as hippies. Grogan's is a fading memory. So are the downtown stores of the era: ZCMI, Auerbach's, The Paris. Sears is the last one standing, and it is showing its age. The big Sears sign is fraying; the shrubs in front are glum.
My memory train is derailed by people gathering at the door. At 10 a.m., door unlocked, I follow them in and across the shiny linoleum floor. Half heads for "Shoes"; the others ride the escalator down to "Tools." The lower level is so quiet that a cashier's chatter reaches the appliance section in the far corner. For one accustomed to Home Depot or Walmart, with all that stuff overflowing into the aisles, the empty spaces at Sears are unnerving. Displays, shelves and floor space all need re-stocking. The "Temporarily Unavailable" sign on most of the checkout stations throughout the store seems an apt explanation for absent inventory.
It is no secret that Sears is on the ropes. A March USA Today story quotes Sears' parent company as saying "substantial doubt exists related to the company's ability to continue as a going concern," an unsurprising but frank admission from a business that has been losing money since 2010. That Sears might follow Circuit City and Sports Authority into bankruptcy is hard to reconcile with my own experience over the years. Sears was the sought-after retail powerhouse to anchor shopping malls. The Sears Tower in Chicago was the tallest building in the world in 1973. For me, Sears was dependable. It was never trendy, more Corolla than Tesla; a place to buy work boots and wrenches, not little black dresses. I had faith in its Kenmore and Craftsman brands. I bought Diehard car batteries. In 1985, when Sears offered a Discover Card with an unheard-of "cash-back bonus," I took it happily and used it to buy a Craftsman garden tractor at Searstown, a mall near my house in Massachusetts.
So why isn't the 131-year-old company prospering? The answer is well documented: Competition from Walmart and its box-store ilk; the advent of online shopping; consumers veering off in different directions like a Cub Scout troop at Lagoon. Sears was the default retail choice for me, just as ZCMI was for my grandparents. Gen Y prefers Target, Costco and Home Depot. The retail ecosystem has evolved in line with Darwinian principles. The less-fit have fallen by the wayside. Hello, iTunes; so long, Tower Records. Borders is gone; Amazon is thriving. I don't register such market changes as they take shape just as I don't notice dandelions until they bloom in a profusion of yellow flowers in my lawn. I did hear that Amazon is testing a grocery store without checkout registers, and I've read about internet companies whose algorithms will select and ship stylish clothes to clients on consignment. But more interesting to me is such retroverse developments as Amazon's new brick-and-mortar bookstores. And online-retailer Bonobos' stores where men can try on clothing because "style is opinion, fit is fact." (Selected items are then shipped from a warehouse.)
Sears CEO Edward Lampert complains that unfair media coverage has contributed to the company's declining fortunes. A recent experience of mine suggests other problems. My car battery failed in January. I jump-started the car and drove to Sears. Leaving the car running, I walked into the store. It was mid-morning. At the service desk, a clerk fiddled with a computer trying to unravel a problem for the only other customer. The adjacent shop area was dark and quiet. After 10 minutes, the clerk acknowledged me with a perfunctory "Be with you in a minute." I took advantage of our eye contact to ask how long it would take to replace a battery. "Four or five hours," he said, returning to the computer. I walked out to the parking lot and drove away.
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