The Original Everything Store

by Curt Kovener

The iconic memories of my youth are fading away. And this time it isn’t my mind that’s going…though some may take issue with that.
Like Eastman Kodak, photo giant of my childhood and later early worklife, Sears filed bankruptcy last week.
Founded shortly after the Civil War, the original Sears, Roebuck & Company built a catalog business that sold Americans the latest dresses, toys, build-it-yourself houses and even tombstones, cocaine and opium. In their heyday, the company’s stores, which began to spread across the country in the early 20th century, were showcases for must-have washing machines, snow tires and furniture.
We kids of the 50’s anxiously awaited the thick— sometimes over 2” and 1,000 pages—Sears Christmas Catalog to arrive in the mail. Later it was labeled “The Wish Book”, we quickly glossed past the clothing and housewares sections to get to the holy grail of the catalog: the toy section.
A generation or two before, our grandparents and great grandparents put the catalog to more utilitarian use after the holidays. It not only made for some time passing nostalgia during the daily constitutional in the outhouse, but a page or two was ripped out to finish the “paperwork” before departing the little brown shack out back.
Sears long ago gave up its mantle as a retail innovator, falling far behind big-box rivals like Walmart and Home Depot and the e-commerce giant Amazon.
Since 2005, Sears has been run by a billionaire hedge fund manager, Edward S. Lampert, who stripped out many of the company’s valuable properties and brands — and then laid claim to much of what is left over.
The upscale Lands End clothing company based in Wisconsin was one of the brands sold off. And, knowing a good thing when he sees it, its largest shareholder is now Lampert. Sears well known and guaranteed for life Craftsman tool line is now sold at Lowe’s.
In the bankruptcy filing, Sears listed $11.3 billion in liabilities and $7 billion in assets. Over the past five years, the company lost about $5.8 billion; over the past decade, it shut more than 1,000 stores. Many of the 700 stores that remain have frequent clearance sales, empty shelves and handwritten signs.
The company’s vendors have sharply limited the number of products they will provide on credit, making it more difficult for Sears to compete with other retailers during the crucial holiday shopping season.
Sears was a retail anchor in many malls and shopping centers and was a must-visit destination of my youth while parents did shopping.
The early Sears Store in Jackson County was located in downtown Seymour, where the Tribune is now located.
Sears is using a Chapter 11 filing in Federal Bankruptcy Court in New York to cut its debts and keep operating at least through the holidays. To emphasize the company’s fall, Sears’ stock, which topped $120 a share as recently as 2007, closed on Friday before the Chapter 11 filing at 40.7 cents a share.