This week, for the first time in most of its residents’ lives, Boise will not have a Sears store.
When its doors closed last week, the store in Boise Town Square joined one of 142 closing nationally – casualties of Sears bankruptcy. A once unthinkable demise for a company that made history as the largest and most innovative retailer in the world.
The rise and fall of Sears began in 1888, with the Sears Catalog. There was a time when virtually every home in America had a copy of the famous “wish book.” Customers used it to order everything from socks and sweaters to sewing machines and saddles.
Sears and Roebuck opened its first retail store in Chicago in 1925. In its heyday, the company opened a new store every other business day. The Treasure Valley’s first Sears and Roebuck stores opened in Boise and Caldwell in 1949. Boise’s was at the corner of Thirteenth and State streets, in a building now occupied by the Idaho State Insurance Fund.
I remember that old store well. It smelled like popcorn; a machine near the entrance popped non-stop. The store had several floors, but was still smaller than most department stores are today. You didn’t have to walk as far to find things, and a helpful sales person was never far away. It was old-fashioned, almost cozy.
The store was a magnet for kids and their parents when school closed for the summer. My folks bought my first bicycle there, and the annual trip to Sears for new tennis shoes was a rite of summer.
It was on the edge of downtown proper, so there were no parking meters. Parking wouldn’t have been a problem anyway, because the store had one of the city’s first parking garages.
The garage was the scene of one of the oddest accidents I’ve ever seen. Newlyweds at the time, my wife and I had finished shopping and were walking to our car when a young couple took one of the turns in the parking garage too fast and rolled their Volkswagen bug. Their purchases that day included multiple gallons of paint, and every single one of them opened – drenching the car’s interior and its owners with baby blue paint.
The store was a popular destination for buying appliances, automotive products and tools. A Kenmore dishwasher we purchased there lasted forever, and you couldn’t go wrong with Sears tires or Diehard batteries. During the 13 years the Woodwards spent remodeling an old house appropriately nicknamed Maintenance Manor, the tool department was my second home.
Two things were responsible for this – Craftsman brand tools and the Old Guys – upper case intentional – who worked in the tool department. They knew everything about every tool and how to use it. Seasoned professionals, they answered questions knowledgeably and happily volunteered tips to make projects go smoothly.
That changed. There were exceptions, of course, but at newer Sears stores Old Guys tended to give way to younger sales people who lacked experience and often knowledge about the tools they were selling. I stopped buying tools at Sears after realizing that I knew more about them than the kids who were selling them.
The new store in the Boise Towne Square mall was bigger and in some ways nicer than the old one, but lacked its character. It was a generic mall store. It was modern and efficient, but the warmth and personality of the old store were conspicuously absent.
Perhaps that was a factor in Sears’s downfall. While Macy’s, Dillard’s and Nordstrom continued to attract loyal customers and Lowe’s, Home Depots and Walmarts expanded, Sears languished.
Many reasons are cited for its demise – competition from Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and other retailers, the ill-fated merger with Kmart, cutbacks in sales staffs, bad management decisions. Once the world’s most innovative retailer, Sears failed to innovate well enough or nimbly enough to meet the challenges of rapidly changing times.
I visited the Town Square store during its last days. The atmosphere was funereal. The store was plastered with “store closing” and discount signs. The few customers who had bothered to show up were trolling for bargains. With so few people to wait on, sales people chatted languidly among themselves.
Gravitating to the tool department, I asked a salesman there to share his thoughts on the store’s closing.
“I won’t talk to you,” he said.
“Will any of the sales people talk to me?”
“How about the store manager?”
“Maybe. I’ll walk you down there.”
The manager was in his office, talking with two employees. I introduced myself and told him I had some questions. He said I’d have to talk to the company’s corporate P.R. people in Chicago, after which the three of them resumed their conversation as if I didn’t exist. To borrow one of my mother’s expressions, I left “feeling like two cents waiting for change.”
That afternoon, it was announced that Sears had given its executives millions in bonuses while their employees were being handed their hats. So it wasn’t surprising that the folks in the manager’s office were feeling less than effusive.
A woman working in the Town Square manager’s office said the Sears entrances will remain barricaded until its space is filled. She had no idea who or what would do the filling.
A week later, it was announced that one of Boise’s Shopko stores was closing – another casualty in a growing list: Shopko, Sears, Kmart, Mervyns, the Bon Marche, C.R. Anthony’s, C.C. Anderson’s, the Mode, Ltd …
Times change, businesses evolve.
Nothing lasts forever.