In 1995′s The Brady Bunch Movie, Mike decides to reward the family for a valuable lesson learned by taking them to Sears.
On one level, it’s a facile gag by way of product placement. The uber-square department store was exactly the sort of place the perma-retro Brady clan would shop. For folks of a certain age, however, that campy call to retail pilgrimage hits like a multi-megaton nostalgia bomb.
My slice of post-war suburbia did not lack for department stores. Growing up, there were half a dozen within three miles of my North Woburn doorstep. Most of these — such as Zayres, Caldor, Bradlees, Stuart’s — were either standalone locations or tethered to one end of a strip mall. Despite minor differences in decor and inventory, they were nearly interchangeable in practice. “Downmarket” is probably too strong a word to describe those places, but they operated on the principles of value and convenience. When you needed something fast and cheap — be it a new floor mat for your Vega or a pair of plaid chinos for a school recital the following day — they were a short hop away.
Going to Sears, however, was an event.
My grandma would talk about going to Sears the way jet setters talk about to nipping off to Paris to check out the Fall fashions. It wasn’t the distance (our closest one was right across the street from Bradlees and nearer to our home than Caldor was) or its higher mark-ups on items. It was about the venerability of the name and grand sense of scale on display — an all encompassing retail environment which sold everything from drill bits to washing machines to dress shirts. There was a lunch counter and an optical center and multiple floors of offerings that could be accessed by escalators.
Sears was the platonic ideal of what a department store should be, the middle class market gold standard which other chains strove to emulate. If your parents (or grandparents) took you there, it was for a Big Reason — to pick out a new fridge or get snow tires for the family car or to get sartorially kitted out for the upcoming school year. Sears was the place with official Boy and Girl Scout uniforms and gear, and one of Maura’s cherished childhood memories is of picking our her Brownie cap and sash with her mom there.
Our local Sears served as the gateway anchor to the Burlington Mall, the wide gateway by the ladieswear section opening out onto a dimly lit nirvana of conspicuous consumption. My grandmother rarely ventured with us into its depths, preferring to stick close to the fountain and Brigham’s ice cream parlor just beyond the Sears entrance. I can’t speak for the rest of my generation, but my weird fixation with malls and mall culture began there, as a tyke begging my Nana for pennies to toss into the water.
If the floor displays weren’t magical enough, there were the phonebook-sized Sears catalogs hawking everything from patio furniture to decorative suits of medieval armor available for home delivery or in-store pick-up. The holiday season Wish Book loomed large in my childhood, the leaping off point for compiling long lists of coveted treasures in hope that maybe a couple would manifest on Christmas morning. Flipping through them now feels like examining a core sample of childhood covetousness, while simultaneously reverse engineering my family’s gifting and budgetary methodologies.
Beyond the toys, it was fascinating to realize just how much of our household bric-a-brac came from the Wish Book’s pages. When my parents returned to Woburn after my father’s discharge from the army, they went to Sears to furnish their new apartment.
Sears was where my first bike came from and where I bought my first Star Wars figure, a Stormtrooper whose left foot would eventually get gnawed off by our family dog.
My beloved Atari 2600 console was actually a “Sears Video Arcade” machine, rebranded and marketed under an OEM deal between the two companies.
The camouflage Chuck Taylors that became one of my trademarks in junior high were purchased — over the objections of my grandmother — at Sears. The yellow ones Lil Bro wore later in the decade came with a free Biz Markie cassingle that I’m pretty sure we still have in a crate somewhere.
The thigh-high lineman’s boots I wore at the height of my punk days came from the Sears catalog. The chain around the epaulet of my leather jacket was purchased from the store’s hardware section. The clerk that cut it for me was a unfazed older lady who insisted in helping me find the type of chain that would look best. “The brass finish weighs less and the color work better with your *squints* ‘DISARM OR DIE’ logo on the sleeve.”
I remember wandering around the mall with my high school buddy Damian while he waited for the Sears Auto Center to fit new tires on his hatchback. And I remember his cousin Vinnie complaining that my punk rocker style was “scaring away the chicks, man.”
The contact lenses I wore for a brief period were purchased at the Sears Optical in the Cambridgeside Galleria, as my pal Leech looked over the display of camcorders nearby and pondered selling his soul to acquire one.
Maura’s — and by extension my — first real computer was a Packard Bell jobber bought and financed through Sears back in 1993. Besides making it possible for me to play the AD&D “Gold Box” PC games, it was where I did the bulk of my comedic and poetic writing up until my big creative burn out in 1999.
To this day, whenever I need an item of hardware or a new vacuum cleaner or an AC unit for the spare room, Sears is the first place I turn to. It’s not so much loyalty as an article of faith drilled into me since early childhood. That’s where one goes for those things. If you can score a mass market Justice League or Misfits t-shirt while you’re there, even better.
I don’t know how much longer that will be the case, sadly. Years of mismanagement and miscalculations have pushed the chain to the brink of extinction, with industry experts already declaring Sears to be the retail equivalent of a “dead clave walking.” Our local store has been getting by thanks to patronage of the area’s sizable South Asian immigrant population (who still view Sears through the old lens of the American Retail Dream), but it has given up its second floor — and signature escalators — to Primark. That doesn’t bode well for its long-term prospects.
It might seem odd for a self-proclaimed anarchist to harbor such strong sentiment towards a struggling titan of commerce, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sad about the impending demise of an institution which has been a consistent part of my life for over four decades. I’ll be sad to see it go,