Re-visiting Sears of My Youth
Hell is often described as holding on to something that is no longer there.
I succumbed to this temptation by visiting with a teen pal I worked with at the local Sears. Matthew and I were the same age and started when we turned 16. We lived two blocks from each other but since he was a pagan heathen that went to public school instead of the awkwardly named Holy Name of Jesus, we hadn’t meant before.
Matthew started out in menswear and during my 6 years of Sears tenure stayed there with all the other most handsome, and most gay, lads in the store. I started out as a Toy Department elf for the holiday season. When Christmas ended and my elf services were no longer needed I told Personnel (the pre-cursor to what we now call Human Resources) that I’d work anywhere they wanted and anytime I wasn’t in class. Smartest move I made as from that point I did everything from sales in auto parts to lingerie to data entry, book keeping to being the first ever male phone operator.
I learned a lot including how to never buy anything that I couldn’t make money on once I figured how to manipulate my discount and rebates, a handy skill for a future entrepreneur.
Matthew has stayed at Sears for the past 40 years and I’ve not seen him since though we chat via internet. I assumed we’d play a game of “What Ever Happened to…..” but that got old quickly. Namely because the folks I recall he couldn’t having met so many others between then and now.
Instead we switched to the topic of hiring and learned now you have to be 18 to work at Sears for minimum wage as a 17 year old can’t legally ride the freight elevator or crush boxes, all part of my day at the age. Plus, at such low wages, folks steal all the time which happened decades ago too. Actually the most fun cashiers to work with were always the ones with sticky fingers.
Also learned the building is loaded down in asbestos so when a pipe bursts no one wants to work on it. My first thought was “Matt, are you stoned? Why do you work in a building teaming with carcinogens for decades? That can’t end well, especially for you!”
The mall has been bought by a lad that wants to turn the area into an old folks’ village. However Sears actually owns their building and parking lot which I remembered from working there as the police weren’t allowed to give tickets on it. Other Sears in the area have lost their leases to Dick’s (which is doing just fine, I don’t know why) but this Sears will stay open. They turned down an offer to buy the real estate though I don’t know why as the store makes 3K a year profit before interest and taxes. I was stunned! With my tech writing company I had mornings that I made 3K in profit, how can Sears need an entire year!?!
I asked if he still liked working there and he replied that when I was there Sears had 230 employees. Now it has 30. That in the past, everyone passed through Sears at some point in their lives. That when we closed each night there were at least 10 other employees on site. Now he’s lucky to have 3 which makes being robbed very easy and enticing. He’s so nervous about that he’s literally thin enough to fit in one of my pants’ legs.
It’s funny, going in to the store with my sister, Kitty, she asked if I would recognize him. I said “Sure, unless he got old, bald and/or fat.” He didn’t get fat. Suffice to say I walked right by him until I realized he was the only other person in the entire store. Nothing looked like it did after the big retrofit in the 80’s, particularly him.
I remember the basement literally loaded floor to ceiling with stock the length and width of football fields. Totally empty now. Anything for sale is on the sales floor. The store is a perfect set for a horror movie, quite creepy.
Matt showed me how the registers hadn’t changed since I worked there! For grins I entered my old employee number and did a no-sale which, as always, caused the drawer to fly open, except now there wasn’t much money in it.
I remember Sears being a place folks went, shopping or not, and Matt confirmed that impression. His point was back then it was farthest out retail on route 22 towards Hershey. Today route 22 is loaded down with strip malls featuring every store every other city in the US has from Target and Kohl’s to Ross’ and Great Clips so Sears lost its geographic edge.
On a macro level Matt feels the head of Sears sold off Kenmore and Craftsman, the two brands that made money, so he could buy Sears cheaper. Problem with his bid to buy is the pension fund will be eliminated like it has in Canada, so the retirees are out of luck. Speaking of, he told me of one that recently hit 80 and dementia. Quickly doing the mental math I was stammered “Betty is just now 80? That means she was in her late 30s when I worked with her? I thought she was then, my age now!”
Matt never moved out his parent’s house. At a certain point, my mother would have loved the company and someone to take care of her, but I can’t imagine living in the same bedroom I did as a teen. Even with both parents dead he doesn’t go into “their rooms” since they died. It was like listening to a current version of a Faulkner tale, A Rose for Miss Matt, perhaps.
On the good news front he owns the house now and I’d think he had saved a fortune on rent or mortgage all those years. He’s not spending money on food either. Back in the 80’s if you could wrestle a full time position from Sears they paid well. Department managers made $15 an hour. I had character editors working for me just a few years ago that didn’t make that much and they had to go college.
It was an odd visit as I couldn’t image my life having been put on hold at that (or any) point. I liked working there as I got to do something different every time I punched in and they always hired me back even if I was only in town from college for a week. However, though it was cool to be Sears first male operator, I don’t care to ever say again “Thank you for shopping at the Sears” over the loudspeaker. The Sears? Like you were at the White House or the Parthenon!”