Retail Memories

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about the changes in the retail industry, as so many sales move from brick and mortar stores to the convenience of shopping via computer, and those neighborhood stores seem to fall like dominoes. I hadn’t given it much thought until I read a story in the Chronicle business section this morning about the long and possibly terminal decline of Sears.

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Back in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Florida State, I worked at the Sears on Coral Way in Coral Gables, Florida. It felt like a step up from the previous summer, when I worked in the office of a small department store, part of a local chain called Jackson Byrons. At Sears I worked in the cash office, filling and handing out pay envelopes. Yes, back then Sears paid its employees in cash, and my job involved accepting the cash from the registers on the floor, running it through the counting machines, and making up the pay envelopes. A larger office next to ours handled all the checks and Sears credit card transactions. In 1967, that was it—cash, checks, and Sears cards.

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It was not an exciting job, but I liked the women I worked with, and I didn’t have to work on the sales floor, a job I am totally unsuited for and have successfully avoided all my life. In fact I seriously considered bailing on my college career and staying on at Sears, encouraged by Mabel, the kind-hearted woman who ran the office. My parents did not think that was a Good Idea, and eventually neither did I. (Maybe the dress code was the final straw—dresses, stockings, and high heels.)

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My next encounter with Sears was not so pleasant. A few years later, living in New Orleans while I attended grad school at Tulane and Jack worked on an archeological project in the French Quarter, I innocently tried to change the Sears charge account I had had for several years to my married name. Sears’ reaction was to close my account and offer to open one for Jack. This was not uncommon in the 70s—the same thing happened to a friend of mine when she attempted to replace a card her dog had chewed on—and it inspired me to open accounts of my own as soon as the credit industry began to recognize married women as independent people. (The Discover Card was one of the first, and I’ve had mine since 1990.)

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Sears used to be the Go To place for appliances—in fact, my dad bought a refrigerator on my employee discount—but no more. The Big Box stores are just easier. I bought my current refrigerator at Conn’s (I was in a hurry and they had quick delivery; as I found out later, they had very slow service) and my washer and dryer at Best Buy. I haven’t shopped at the Sears nearest me, in Baybrook Mall, in years, partly (and ironically) because Baybrook is still a healthy mall, the stores and the parking lots always crowded.

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Every time I drive into Houston, I see, from the lofty viewpoint of the freeway, the freestanding downtown Sears store that opened in 1939. I have never set foot in it, although I have lived here for forty years. I wouldn’t know how to reach it via the surface streets (well, it’s at Richmond and Main, I could figure it out). It was once, they say, the epitome of elegance, art deco exterior, interior decorated with murals, escalators connecting all the floors, and, surely a treat in Houston in 1939, air conditioned.

Sears Downtown 1940

The downtown Houston Sears circa 1940

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Sometime in the 1960s, management chose to cover the entire exterior, including the windows which once housed lavish displays, with corrugated metal. Today it looks, as a writer for the Chronicle described it, like a store wrapped in cardboard, as it sits alone in a part of the city that was once a shopping mecca but is no more.

Sears Downtown

The downtown Houston Sears today

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Here in Houston, Sakowitz is long gone. Foley’s was swallowed by Macy’s, which is now closing stores. Montgomery Ward is gone. Borders Books more recently. Whole shopping malls have been torn down or repurposed as something else entirely.

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Back when I was handing pay envelopes to my fellow workers at Sears, none of us could have imagined the Internet, or a computer in every home, much less on line sales hubs or the Amazon app on my smartphone. Maybe home delivery by drone really is right around the corner.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Chris Campillo
    Apr 23, 2017 @ 13:48:43

    Great piece, Kay. Makes me nostalgic. These anchors were such a part of our history, and I have many memories, but I love the convenience of online shopping. That being said, still bought a dishwasher at Sears three years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Kay Hudson
      Apr 23, 2017 @ 17:20:40

      When I was a little girl my mom used to buy me dresses (which I generally hated) from the Spiegel catalog. I suppose that was the forerunner of on line shopping.

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  2. gerrybartlett
    Apr 23, 2017 @ 17:03:59

    You read my mind after I read the Chronicle today. I had similar experiences, working at Foley’s after school the first year I taught. Used my employee discount to support my shopping habit. Of course I did work the sales floor and loved it. Later, after I married, I wanted my own credit card again and they refused me–this was the mid-seventies. I was so mad I cut up my joint account with hubby and didn’t get one again. Waited until I later worked a summer at Macy’s and got one there, in my own name. I will never enjoy on-line shopping. I like to get out and feel things. As for Sears, I quit buying appliances there when their service got so annoying. Yes, I’ll stay home all day and then they might show up at 7:30 at night. That didn’t work for me. Now I buy locally from the little appliance store in League City. Great service when you need it.

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    • Kay Hudson
      Apr 23, 2017 @ 17:17:59

      I never buy clothes on line, Gerry, or anything I really want to look at or try on first, but I do buy books and DVDs from Amazon, and some things that are hard to find locally (wool dryer balls, hand holds for the shower, flannel sheets), and I’ll buy shoes at keds.com because I know what fits me there. But I love to browse at Half Price Books and Bed Bath & Beyond, and try on clothes at Kohl’s. I agree with you about appliance service but there’s a guy in Friendswood who can fix anything, and doesn’t expect you to wait all day. He even answers questions on the phone.

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  3. Cheryl Bolen
    Apr 23, 2017 @ 21:46:04

    Lots of great stuff in this blog, Kay. John and I were talking about the Sears stores when we were growing up in the 50s. We got everything there. All the back-to-school clothes. John in Mobile, Ala., me in Van Nuys, Calif. We’ve also bought an awful lots of appliances there. In fact, their old Silvertone stereo is what brought us together. He liked their sound and had a new album (Temptations) he wanted to hear on my mother’s stereo. It was our first kiss!
    Totally agree about Baybrook Mall. Its successful creates lots of traffic and packed parking lots. I hate to shop there . . . unless it’s at 10 a.m. on the Wednesdays when I walk there, starting at 8:45.
    The Galveston Historical Foundation has fairly recently bought the old Salvation Army building on Broadway and restored it to it’s original: a 1930s art deco SEARS store. Much smaller than the ones they opened around the country in the 50’s.
    Can’t believe Sears paid employees in cash in 1967. That’s wild!
    I feel very guilty about all these stores closing because I’ve helped contribute to it by buying so much online. But shopping (which I’ve always loved) has taken a back seat to being as prolific a novelist as I can comfortably be. I chose to spend my time working.

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  4. JO ANNE
    Apr 23, 2017 @ 22:36:51

    We bought my refrigerator at the downtown Sears (when I was still married to Phil), gad – which makes it 24 or 25 years old. More recently, I got my relatively new stove there. It’s still my go to place for appliances because Sears has a decent service dept and they’re reasonable. The downtown Sears is closest to my house. I’ve often wondered how long it will last. It is iconic.

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