Metro Ethos

11/27/2022

Sears Had Everything

by Linda M. Romanowski

My reading awareness began when I was four years old. As years passed I noticed there were other types of print material besides the children’s fairy tales my mother would read to me before bedtime. The Philadelphia Bulletin first captured my curiosity, folded tight as a backback, with a wet faded smell of fresh-off-the-press newsprint. Dad and Grandpop didn’t seem to mind the traces the ink left on their hands as they spread the news across their laps. What piqued my attention the most was the Sunday delivery, flat and heavy as a door mat, the first page a colorful banner of “The Funnies.” Who was the kid who beat me to it every week to color those front page drawings and add large bubbles with words inside them?

The mailman, another bearer of communication, delivered something similar nearly every day as well. “Bills” were mostly his domain, and not welcomed. Sometimes, among this daily stash there were items that peeked out, seeking the light, not exactly like the rest of the flat massed run of the mill. Mom’s favorite of these gems was The Ladies’ Home Journal. These were magazines, which looked and felt different, glossy, and beautiful, with no men on their covers. My major pull, and my first love, was a Sears production. This gleamed special: it wasn’t a newspaper, it wasn’t a magazine, it was a catalog, to me, a safari of man-made delights. An issue like no other, a publication set apart. The Wish Book.

***

The Sears Catalog was my encyclopedia of desire. A volume of pleasure to view, to read, to dream, to imagine. Where every page fascinated me. Where every day was Christmas. Where I learned basic math. It would not surprise me if my sister’s gift of sketching and drawing, discovered when she was eight years old, took flight from these pages. This tome held a secret that Guttenberg could not have imagined, as an instrument to add height to a kitchen chair tosnag a treat from the cookie jar.

Sears was synonymous with integrity. Their product guarantee was sound, the customer was always right. Patron dissatisfaction was a mortal sin; Sears would do penance by gracious acceptance of any returned item, all return costs refunded in full.

The mail order business began in 1886. The origin of Sears has its roots in the idea of a twenty-three-year old man who sold gold-filled pocket watches for $14 to rural folks who tracked their time by the sun. This entrepreneur, Richard Warren Sears, relocated his Minnesota based business to Chicago. There he joined forces with a watchmaker named Alvah Curtis Roebuck. Mr. Sears, a savvy genius in composing illustrated catalogs, in tandem with Mr. Roebuck’s skill, ushered in a fresh era into the retail world.

Their catalog listed items from A to Z, from automobiles (buggies) to the Zitho-Harp. Its initial tagline was “Sears has everything.” This volume of commerce was as ubiquitous as air. It was one of the best-known books in the country. Greatly loved, fingered, its pages corner-creased for that much-yearned article. It could be said it was the first Pictionary of merchandise. It was a mirror of the times, the reflection of current events, a visual homebound signpost of the Industrial Revolution.

***

In the early years, Sears surely rattled the cages of women’s groups and religious organizations with their bold advertisements of female undergarments and related articles of apparel. Their cleverness in more pleasant verbiage usage to mask the seamy smells of life was unmatched. The word “halitosis” for example, was substituted for the term “bad breath.”

Mom and Pop businesses felt undermined by this new mail order business, fearing their establishments would be priced out of existence. Imagine your fate as a country storekeeper who might also function as a postmaster, saddled with the galling job of delivering Sears catalogs to their customers. Sears was prudent in pricing their merchandise, this emphasis on thrift a major appeal to the masses, a major thorn in the sides of their competitors.

   ***

In the early 1900’s, installment buying became a new purchasing concept in American culture. This flew in the face of the existing method of dolce dollari, an Italian phrase meaning “sweet dollars,” of acquiring goods when you had the money. What began as a tactic for big ticket item purchases such as major appliances eventually extended to expendable products, such as clothing. This shift created a change of attitude toward debt. Buying on time became a new lure, an accepted practice that has been cited as one of the causes of the Great Depression in 1929.

Sears original strategy was in direct opposition to this method, maintaining its focus on low prices to keep their customers solvent and loyal. The company gradually adapted, offering an “Easy Payment Plan,” retaining their price range, with a more liberal philosophy of not charging interest on unpaid balances. Fast forward to the mid 1970’s, where for those of us of a certain age, attaining a Sears credit card was a major rite of passage.

Sears became the world’s largest store. It can be historically viewed as the Mother of Amazon. Whatever else might have been out there was unknown to me. There was only one catalog in my mind, the Sears Catalog. Their second tagline, “Sears, where America shops for values” was ingrained early the formation of my consumer attitude.

   ***

The Northeast Philadelphia Sears location was completed in 1920, the company’s second largest facility. It was a large complex located at the intersection of Adams Avenue and the Roosevelt Boulevard. A nine-story office building occupied the area, with a fourteen-story clock tower attached to one side. Everyone named the area the Sears Tower, everyone knew what the phrase represented. It was one huge beehive, a mecca for the masses. The company hired thousands of workers in the immediate vicinity. Many high school students secured their first employment in the numerous offices which kept the company in operation. Sears became an unintended matchmaker for these many young adults. Sears in Northeast Philadelphia became a harbinger of the American Dream. Perhaps the concept of Six Degrees of Separation found its origins here.

My father-in-law was a Sears employee for over 30 years. His career began after World War II and the GI Bill. He started as a manager of the Truck Tire Department at this Roosevelt Boulevard location. He ultimately moved to the large item retail sales area on that same site. Sears provided a steady, healthy livelihood for his family, near home. This livelihood furnished his home, and that of his three children. Sears was a place to be proud to be employed. Employment there meant certainty, a gainful endeavor. Dad attested to the third tagline, “There’s more for your life at Sears,” could easily have been applied to the entire employee population of 89,000, to their work ethic and loyalty.

In the mid 1970’s this stalwart company began losing ground. Lack of management direction, competition, inflation, and the cost of business stagnated the company. Its stock price plummeted in 1972 from $61 to $24 per share. Lawsuits and government investigations eroded the confidence of the once solid, faithful middle-class customers. This downturn baffled its structure from top to bottom. Layoffs entered this once idyllic workplace.

      ***

My husband and I were married in 1980. During the phase of our first house hunt, we found ourselves searching for prospects a few miles north of the Sears Tower. We settled in West Mayfair, a pleasant area, affordable for us. The Sears Tower became our landmark, our halfway travel point between ours and our parents’ homes. It was probably the first compass in our daughter’s acquiring her excellent sense of direction. Its location was a lighthouse to me when evening travels were surrounded by fog or blizzard. A beacon, secure, strong, paternal, permanent. If a local inhabitant described where they lived to another Philadelphian unfamiliar with the Northeast area, he/she would use the Tower as a reference point. No other explanation required.

       ***

In the late 1980’s, Sears was still the largest retailer in the U.S., diminishing in stature to thirty-first place in 2018. It filed for bankruptcy on October 15, 2018. It remains open with 425 stores after it won its bankruptcy auction. It is anticipated that this number will shrink to 222 by the end of 2019, with further reduction predicted to 100 stores by January 2020. Retirees in 2019 numbered 90,000.

Rumors spread that the Northeast Sears complex was in danger of demolition. When the news came that the Sears Tower fall was a matter of scheduling, my father-in-law talked instead of cried. He was about to lose a family member. His retirement still bound him to his lifetime employer. He spoke vehemently about the Tower falling, with no intention of viewing its demise. Maybe it was more than this building disappearing. Perhaps his war memories re-haunted him, of buildings he might have seen collapse, or collapsed places where he might have rescued victims. He planned, if that day came, to remain in his home, out of sight range. He would sit alone in the smallest room of the house, without TV or radio or outdoor noise to disturb him. He would mourn in private. I began to imagine his tears stifled; his facial muscles clenched in torment. His affable, gregarious nature quelled. I already envisioned my mother-in-law busying herself in the kitchen, preparing Sunday dinner, no doubt pacing the floor, blocking out all communication with the outside world. Mom knew she would never cross the line where dad was concerned during these moments. I knew she would respect his anguish.

The fourth tagline, “The softer side of Sears,” which debuted in 1993, was quietly retired, deferred to the implosion.

***

The city prepared for the largest scheduled implosion at that time in the world’s recorded history. It is the currently preferred method of detonation, safer and more efficient than the explosion process. The two methods oppose one another. Implosion detonates from the outer surface of a structure to the inner surface; a detonation wave occurs and moves energy inward. In effect, it disintegrates into an object’s core. The explosion process casts the energy upward and outward. Implosion is delicacy in precision, balancing on the head of a pin, an engineered ballet. A ballet of grief. The Sears Tower would fall in seven seconds. The Sears power plant would be spared.

***

The demolition date was set for Sunday, October 30, 1994, at 9:00am. A weekday would never sustain such an impact in this heavily trafficked area. Several blocks surrounding the Sears complex were barricaded, at least within a quarter of a mile. The Tower was fourteen stories in height, twenty-five million square feet, nine million bricks in its composition.

A highly sensitive situation co-existed with this plan. The location of Friends Hospital, a mental institution founded by Quakers in 1813, was a prime concern. The facility, which still functions on its original site on Roosevelt Boulevard, was directly across the street from the Tower. While the distance between them was a quarter mile, the open area, the pending commotion, and the process of the explosion was determined by Friends management as a possible perceived threat by their patients in residence. Thorough planning of their evacuation was a success, but not disclosed to the public. It’s feasible that some of the more stable patients were relocated to the furthest area of the hospital, since Friends physical layout comprises one hundred acres.

   ***

Thousands of Northeast Philadelphians gathered on that clear, airy, dry October 30 day. We were several blocks behind the complex. We faced the back of the Tower. We were with friends, reminiscing, mournful. We hardly spoke, we shifted our posture from one leg to the other, since we arrived one hour prior to schedule. Our daughter Eve, then eighteen months old, was in her stroller.

The air was dense and intense with chatter, murmuring. Banter of Monday morning quarter backing about what should have been done to not have this about to happen. Some saw it as a necessity. Some saw it as an execution. Some chanted to get on with it, others rallied to get over it. One generation cried out in pain and helplessness, another scoffed at their anguish. Pockets of revelers sneered with glee, chanting:

JUST LET THE DAMN THING FALL!!!                  

The countdown began. The building was to implode within seven seconds. Some people screamed the countdown at the ten seconds mark. Then, the chant: “three…two…one!!!”

 From our vantage point, white clouds of smoke billowed from the base of the building to our left, like expulsion fumes that NASA spacecraft propel into the air when they separate from the launch tower. The implosion seemed to be horizontal, in slow motion. The Tower did not move. It seemed to hesitate.

Ever.

So.

Slightly.

Did it pause? Did it hesitate? Could it be struggling?

            ***

Then, some ignoramus behind us belched out a raucous laugh. He scoffed and yelled, “No wonder it’s tottering. It’s tottering, just like the business did!!” A chorus of jeers agreed. The taunting escalated. Then, the Tower appeared to twist and fall, as if the earth was yanked out from under it.

That seeming pause, that infinitesimal hesitation, as if looking, looking over its worn-down shoulder, looking at me. Seeming incredulous, seeming to hear the ridicule of the rude, of the callous, seeming to plead, Why are you forsaking me? After all I have done for you these past 70 years!? Like an opera diva, jilted by her lover, I saw the Tower as a broken woman, heartlessly treated. Perhaps what I felt was her entreaty, begging to remain, after all she had been, after all she thought she always would be. She fell in 7.5 seconds. Perhaps she really shrugged her shoulders, extending the implosion with her half-point heartbeat…

It baffled me that no one communicated the possibility of the tsunamic crash that flung clouds of pulverized cement and concrete into the atmosphere. Clouds rolled across the sky the way ocean foam rushes to the shoreline, stranding the multitudes of onlookers, locking pedestrians in panic. The Tower unleashed her wrath at those who ridiculed her. Fortunately, our position was the furthest spot from the spectacle. We were on the outskirts of the stampede. We protected Eve under several blankets, lifted the stroller from the ground with her in it, and fled. The clouds followed us, followed everyone, full-strength nuclear winter on Roosevelt Boulevard. Three blocks later, we escaped the Tower’s fury. We bounded for our car.

We drove to my in-laws. Ken’s father remained sequestered upstairs. We refrained from turning on the TV. There was no desire to resurrect our experience. Our speech was halting. As I cradled Eve in my arms to feed her, I prayed a thanksgiving and a requiem. The stink of the dank, oppressive odor from the sky permeated my breathing. That night, the dank oppressive odor permeated my dreams. I fought the Tower’s demise, to no avail. I swore upon waking I would never be a spectator to another falling structure. My vision lived in shock for months after the Tower’s collapse. Our first drive past its gaping space unleashed a spate of severe headaches. My eyes so fiercely riveted to a vanguard that was no more. My eyes darting back and forth, relentlessly, praying the temporary fog before me would clear. The ache was so intense, so acute, covering my eyes provided no relief. My eyelids smarted, struggling to open with the belief that this time, the Tower would tower before me, as it always had. I may have experienced a psychosomatic encounter, where the mind creates a conflict with the body fighting against reality. Embarrassed, I kept my torment to myself. I eased my phobia by avoidance, by driving an alternate route, until my psyche created distance to allow the trauma to dissipate.

Metro Ethos is independently curated by Linda and Ken Romanowski.