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.