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The Legacy Of Sears: From American Staple To The Brink Of Bankruptcy


Sears, the chain of department stores, has been a part of American culture for 125 years. The commercials from my childhood said it all.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) Bright ideas. Kenmore, too. Craftsman has the tools for you.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) There's more for your life. It's more for your life. There's more for your life at Sears.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I won't be able to get that out of my head now. But the auto center, hardware, appliance and clothing store is approaching the end of its long, slow decline. Sears Holdings, the company that owns Sears - and I should say Kmart - needs to pay back $134 million of debt by tomorrow or face bankruptcy. Jerry Hancock is a Sears fan and historian. And he joins us now. Thanks for being on the program.

JERRY HANCOCK: No problem. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How are you feeling about this moment? As I said, Sears has been struggling for a while. But tomorrow's deadline looks serious. And reports are that its big lenders are pushing for liquidation.

HANCOCK: Yeah. It's sort of sad, really. It's - Sears is an American institution. You know, I was listening to the commercial you were just playing, and it brought back memories for me, as well. I mean, I think that's really a big part of the staying power - is it's sort of nostalgic, you know, for older generations. I mean, I grew up in the '70s. And Sears was still, you know, gargantuan at that point. A lot of people would say that that was sort of their pinnacle, the '60s and '70s, the post-World War II era. But if you talk to some of the retirees and folks who used to work for Sears, a lot of them believe that that's sort of where Sears began to lose touch with their working-class roots.


HANCOCK: After World War II, obviously, this, you know, huge period of prosperity through the 1950s, Sears really began to sort of shift their approach away from working class to more affluent customers. They started marketing things like furs and diamond rings, the Vincent Price art collection. And a lot of folks felt that Sears was sort of moving away from it.


JAKE HOLMES: (Singing) Sears has got the softest hardware for you. We've got jumpers and cables, cotton and knit, denim seat covers with a real comfy fit, new mixers and blenders, some toasters and wool. Our appliances will make you so beautiful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And Sears, at its zenith, wasn't, you know, only a place to get appliances and clothes. It was sort of everything.

HANCOCK: Absolutely. We actually have some photos in a collection that I found in Athens at University of Georgia in their archives, pictures of hound dogs at the Atlanta plant and retail store in the 1950s. They literally had a kennel where they kept these hunting dogs. And you could order a hunting dog from the catalog.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. May I ask how you got interested in Sears?

HANCOCK: Well, it was sort of interesting. I grew up in rural south Georgia in the 1970s. And in that sort of agricultural community, Sears was everything, you know? I remember the mail lady delivering the catalogs, the fall spectacular. You know, I knew when that came, it was about time to go back to school because you'd start looking for school clothes and dog-earing those pages. And then, obviously, you know, in the fall - late fall, you would get the Sears Wish Book in preparation for the holidays. That's back when, you know, Santa Claus still shopped at Sears.


HANCOCK: And it really was a big part of my life. And then when I went back to college, it just sparked a curiosity. I wanted to sort of see why this Chicago company became such a rich part of the South and its culture and its history. In the Atlanta plant, by 1929, 1930, they'd actually opened a farmer's market on the back lot and were reaching out to the rural farmers in the region to try and help them establish a market with the urban customer. They really did a lot to help the American farmer, particularly in the South, help themselves. And then once, you know, we got past World War II and the economy began to improve, they had these just dedicated customer bases around the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the loss of Sears will mean for American life?

HANCOCK: For the older generation, it's the changing of the times. Sears was just such an integral part of their childhood, building that American family. I think Sears was a backbone of that. And you could actually go to the Sears catalog and order an entire house. It would, you know, have 35 windows and 500 gallons of paint and 50 to 100 pounds of nails and instructions to put it all together. You could order from Sears. They would send it to the nearest railroad depot. And then you could get those materials out to the building site and build an entire house. There are actually a number of communities in North Carolina where almost the entire town is Sears houses that were purchased through the catalog.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And anything I buy at Sears, if I buy it here and they - for some reason, the size doesn't fit, they don't like the color, they can go to any Sears store and exchange it without any problems. You could order from the catalog and have them ship it to wherever you want, anywhere in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Sears, where America shops.

HANCOCK: Sears taught America about the modern world through this catalog. You can go back as, you know, as far as the late 1890s when the catalog was there. And it was a period where, you know, the World's Fair phenomenon was really booming at that point in our history. And you could go to the catalog and actually see those items, things like cream separators. And Singer sewing machines was one of the huge items for Sears. It completely changed American life. That catalog was sort of a window into this new consumer world, and it really made a connection with people.


DOROTHY SHAY: (Singing) Dear Mr. Sears and Roebuck...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jerry Hancock, history teacher and Sears expert, thank you so much.

HANCOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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