I was working out on an elliptical trainer at the gym yesterday when I saw news that Sears had at last filed for bankruptcy. I extended my workout long enough to watch the longer report on the TV news broadcast — not because I expected to learn something I didn’t already know about the failed retail giant, but for the same reason that people in some parts of the South turn on their headlights and pull over on the shoulder when meeting a funeral procession. It just seems like the right and respectful thing to do.
I can’t think of another corporation capable of provoking that kind of reaction upon its demise. But Sears, Sears was once part of American life — and an American childhood — in a way that is difficult for kids today to appreciate. Sure, it was as ubiquitous as Amazon is today, but the quality of the Amazon experience is fundamentally different. Sears was a place. As a child growing up in the ’70s, I was about as aware of Sears as a fish is of water. It’s just where your mom took you to buy Toughskins jeans for school, and Kenmore appliances, and where your dad got his Craftsman tools. For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, those brand names convey institutional trust.
Do kids today feel the same way about brands? Does anybody? Those words, and everything about Sears, were bound to an unstated middle American, mid-century ideal. Now that Sears is gone — and in truth, it’s been gone for a long time — it’s hard to find the words to describe a cultural phenomenon that was so defining. My family’s relationship to Sears was like its relationship to the Methodist Church, except we actually faithfully visited Sears with regularity. My point is that it was an institution upon which our life as a middle to lower middle class American family was built.
Those trips to Sears were a big deal, though most of that, I suspect, is because we had to drive into the city from the country to shop. It made Sears a destination. It’s easy to laugh now, but for a rural kid — at least a rural kid like me — that really meant something. It was an escape from the plainness of country life, and an immersion in cosmopolitanism. Sears, cosmopolitan? For me, it absolutely was. Going to Sears was the only reason we ever went into the city. It was like going to a fair, to a bazaar. After I finished dutifully trying on the Toughskins (size “husky”), I was free to wander the entire store alone. Can you imagine letting your nine-year-old wander a large department store alone? Everybody did in those days. It was freedom, it was color, it was a particular kind of wonder that, for a boy like me, was only available at Sears.
Sears was a place, but Sears was also a catalog. Mama loved the Sears catalog, but my sister and I only loved the Wish Book, the annual Christmas catalog. It was like Capitalism’s Book of Kells. Oh, the joy of sitting in the back seat of our pale yellow Ford LTD, watching Mama pull the 600-page behemoth out of the mailbox (Route 5B, Box 916), knowing that we had months of delirious reading ahead of us until Christmas.
Some wonderful man has scanned and uploaded thousands of Christmas catalog pages (not just Sears’s) onto WishBookWeb.com. It’s a total nostalgia kick. Here, for example, is the 1977 Wish Book. I was 10 years old, and can guarantee you that I studied it with monkish intensity. I read these pages so many times that it’s a wonder the images weren’t burned into my retinas. I got one of these things that year — the Sears brand Atari:
OK, young people, laugh at the primitive images, but bear in mind that this was the leading edge of electronic gaming in 1977!
You know how much that electronic gaming system cost in 2018 dollars? Are you ready for this? $850. I was shocked to discover that. My dad, on his pitiful salary as a state worker, and my mom, with her pittance of a school bus driver’s salary, bought me that for Christmas, 1977. What a stretch that was for them. They never let on. They just wanted me to be happy.
I lost myself this morning between the 1977 Wish Book and the 1975 Wish Book, and I can’t remember which of the images below comes from which of the two catalogs. It really doesn’t matter. The mid-1970s were a TERRIBLE time. The joy of reading the Wish Book back then, as a child, was that we didn’t know any better. This was as good as middle-class American life got back in the day.
I mean, honestly:
I never had plaid Toughskins, but there exists a photo of me on the playground on the first day of first grade, September 1973, and me wearing maroon Toughskins, a matching maroon turtleneck, and a white leather belt. Nixon’s The One!
Yep, I had this NFL print set.
The curtains weren’t high enough in my window to prevent the Sasquatches from peering into my bedroom at night. This was a problem.
That faux-wood console TV, in 2018 dollars, would cost you $1,852. I was showing my 14-year-old son consumer electronics from back then, in the catalog, and telling him how crappy stuff was in those days, and how expensive.
Finally, I just want you to say these words out loud: PERMA-PREST RANCHTONE.
PERMA-PREST RANCHTONE are two (three?) words that encapsulate the mid-1970s, right there.
Sears: where America shopped for Perma-Prest Ranchtone. Until it didn’t.
I can’t remember the last thing I bought at Sears. In fact, I don’t know if I ever did buy a thing there. I wouldn’t have been caught dead shopping there as a teenager in the 1980s, and can’t imagine that I ever would have gone there as an adult for anything. Oh, wait, when we lived in Dallas in the mid-2000s, we bought a Kenmore washing machine at Sears. But that was it.
In September 2012, my family and I were going on a long trip, and needed new coats. It’s almost impossible to find coats in stores in Louisiana in September. I was passing by a Sears store near an Interstate exit in Hammond, and pulled over to see what they had. It was shocking to see how badly Sears had declined. It was like dropping by to see a distant cousin you hadn’t visited in decades, only to find that she had let herself go, and was staggering around in a dirty housecoat with curlers and slippers, smoking Kools and smelling of cat piss. I knew for sure that Sears was going to die. It wasn’t even trying anymore.
James Lileks has a great tour through the 1973 Sears Fall and Winter catalog, which he describes as “the nadir of human civilization.” Hard to disagree with that. Who knew that we all used to live in East Germany? Well, there’s evidence.
Back in 2014, Edward McClelland wrote a thoughtful pre-obituary for Sears in Slate. Excerpts:
You shopped at Sears. You wore Toughskins jeans. You paged through the Fall/Winter catalog, thumbing frayed edges onto the toy section. You mowed your grass with a Craftsman lawnmower, and ate hamburgers off a Kenmore grill.
I know you shopped at Sears, because everyone shopped at Sears. In the history of the United States, there has been no more ubiquitous, unifying experience — religious, entertainment or retail — than shopping at Sears. For a culture that defines itself by consumption, it’s only fitting that this should be a department store. In 1972, the year Sears began building the world’s tallest building in downtown Chicago, three out of every four Americans visited one of its locations every year — a larger proportion than have seen “The Wizard of Oz.” Half of all households held a Sears credit card — more than go to church on Christmas. Sears’s sales accounted for 1 percent of the Gross National Product.
In an internal merchandising plan written later that decade, a Sears executive identified the company’s audience, and its identity: “Sears is a family store for middle-class, home-owning America. We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent. We are not a discounter, nor an avant-garde department store…We reflect the world of Middle America, and all of its desires and concerns and problems and faults.”
True, true, 100 percent true. More:
Sears is dying as a result of two not unrelated phenomena: the shrinking of the middle class and the atomization of American culture. It’s still an all-things-for-all-shoppers emporium that sells pool tables, gas grills, televisions, beds and power drills, then cleans your teeth, checks your eyes and fills out your taxes. But that niche is disappearing as customers hunt for bargains on the Internet and in specialty stores, and as the retail world is pulled apart into avant-garde department stores and discounters — exactly what Sears promised it would never be. Maybe in 1975, a salesman and his boss both bought their shirts and ties at Sears, but now the boss shops at Barneys, and the salesman goes to Men’s Wearhouse. This divide is a result of the fact that, over the last two decades, the top 5 percent of earners have increased their share of consumption from 28 percent to 38 percent.
Read the whole thing. Sears wasn’t just a retailer. It was truly an icon. And now it’s dead, as is the Perma-Prest Ranchtone world it embodied. It was pretty crappy in many ways, but it was our crappy childhood, and I can’t help feeling a bit sad at its demise.
There’s only one thing left to say about the middle-American, Perma-Prest Ranchtone glory that was Sears, and only one person who can say it:
I look forward to your nostalgic comments. By the way, I’m going to be on the road for most of the day, so please be patient; I’ll get to your comments eventually.