Sears: Nothing but usefulness

SAM SMITH, WASHINGTON POST, 1993 – Eugene Talmadge used to campaign through Georgia saying, “Y’all got only three friends in the world. You got the Lord God Almighty, you got the Sears Roebuck catalog, and you got Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them.”

Eugene Talmadge died long ago and this week Sears Roebuck announced its was ceasing publication of what was, for many decades, America’s most important publication. I hope God can handle it alone.

I know it’s going to be tough on me. Not only has Sears dumped its catalog, it’s going to close its store on Wisconsin Avenue with rooftop parking so practical and inviting that the company has to warn away those who would use it for ancillary purposes such as automobile repairs. During World War II, the Sears on Wisconsin was where my father would start coasting as much of the way to Georgetown as possible, an exercise encouraged by gas rationing. The Indians used Wisconsin Avenue in much the same way, a “rolling road” down which they tumbled barrels of tobacco.

Like millions of other Americans, I came to believe in Sears. It was not so much quality that drew us, but consistency and utility. As recently as this fall, when my wife and I decided it was time to replace our 30-year-old gas stove, I discovered that only Sears had a model in the right color and a drip pan under the burners that prevented wok splatterings and overboiled soup from congealing in inaccessible recesses. It wasn’t the prettiest stove, just the one that worked best.

When I read David Oglivie’s Confessions of an Advertising Man and learned that this sophisticated Britisher bought his suits from Sears, I followed his example until my friends and relatives ridiculed me towards “at least Raleigh’s for chrissake.” I still went to Sears for slacks because Sears sold clothes designed for the classic American male — a man who actually performed physical labor — rather than for thighless pencil-necked geeks whose greatest exertion was hefting a law brief. If the store did not have my size, I could peruse the catalog and choose in the privacy of my own home between the regular and the full-fit. the tall and the big, without enduring the disdain the proportionally impaired sense upon entering a traditional menswear store.

Above all there were the tools. Even the name, Craftsman, made a weekend project seem more appealing. Further, you knew as you adjusted the nut on your Craftsman Skill saw that throughout this great land, millions of others were asking the same probing question, “Is that tight enough?” Sears was what America was meant to be all about: a place that gave you the right tools to do what you wanted.

Beginning in the 1980s, Sears found itself in trouble. The country was no longer interested in utilitarianism. It wanted style, prestige and designer labels. People found me odd when I suggested that if you couldn’t find it at Sears you probably didn’t need it. Over the course of the next decade Sears laid off close to 100,000 workers.

Sears, it was said, had gotten out of step with the times, although times that require the layoff of 100,000 employees because their firm has the sole attribute of being useful may be a bit out of step themselves.

The experts quoted in the papers the past few days say that our economy isn’t about being useful anymore. I saw some of these experts on television. They were fashionably dressed and quite self-assured about the failings of Sears, perhaps because they understand that our new economy is much kinder to experts on Sears than it is to people who work there.

People like the red-vested man who worked the tool section as if it were his own hardware store, the woman who didn’t mind telling which answering machine was really best, and the grandmother who never could quite get the optical scanner to work right

As I drive the extra half hour to the Sears at Montgomery Mall, I shall undoubtedly come to accept the omnipotence of the marketplace. But I’ll be damned if I’ll be grateful for it.

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