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OpinionColumnistsAnne Michaud

The decline of a middle-class icon

We lose something of ourselves when fixtures in our lives begin to disappear

The Sears on Jericho Turnpike in East Northport,

The Sears on Jericho Turnpike in East Northport, above in 2004, one of 265 stores scheduled to close this year. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

My husband and I went to Sears in East Northport recently to pick over the remains. Sears Holdings Corp. announced 265 store closings this year, and this is one of them.

Sears, the grandparent of retail, has shuttered 1 in 3 stores since 2010 under the leadership of a former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager, Edward S. Lampert. He is telling the business media that the chain, which also includes some Kmart stores that are closing, can be smaller and make money. Meanwhile, Lampert has protected his investment through real estate-finance acrobatics, according to BusinessInsider.com, and more than 200,000 Sears jobs have disappeared.

As we wandered past the $5 discount T-shirts on the first floor at the East Northport store, I was reminded of the role of Sears in the American middle class and the evolving U.S. economy: It was long a source of decently compensated jobs, quality tools and reliable appliances, but is now high on some retail analysts’ list of retailers likely to file for bankruptcy protection.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. held an iconic place in America. Founded in 1886, it served people by mail-order in remote parts of the growing country. They could order rifles, stoves and entire pre-fab houses. Sears sold more than 70,000 pre-fab homes in North America between 1908 and 1940.

My husband’s aunt lives in one, put together in the early 1920s for the original owner, a schoolteacher, in the tiny coal-mining town of Princeton, West Virginia. It’s a fine two-story house that has worn well.

Other Sears brands have stood for sturdiness that buyers could count on: DieHard car batteries, Kenmore appliances, Craftsman tools with their lifetime warranties. Sears management has been spinning off these brands to raise cash and stanch Sears’ debt. In 2014, the company sold Lands’ End, and at the start of 2017, Stanley Black & Decker bought Craftsman.

The durable, finely engineered tools were what drew us to the East Northport store. We rode the escalator to the second floor, where tools were selling for as much as 75 percent off. My husband had been eyeing socket sets and adaptable wrenches. When I told him that Stanley now owned the line, he said, “Oh, good. That’s a good company.”

We lose a little something of ourselves when the things we’ve grown up with disappear. He was glad Craftsman had found a good home.

To me, Sears was the publisher of the Wish Book, a catalog of hundreds of pages that signaled the start of the Christmas season when it arrived each year at our home. My brothers and sisters and I would leaf through, making long lists of what we hoped Santa would bring. From toy trucks to G.I. Joe, from Barbie Dream Houses to bicycles. Had we been inclined, we could have ordered matching pajamas for the entire family, tree ornaments or even fruitcakes.

As America grew after the Second World War, Sears broadened its business to include appliance showrooms featuring refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves and washers and dryers. My parents’ generation thought of these as durable investments. Now, with the rise of online shopping — expected to reach more than $500 billion a year in the United States by 2020 — Sears conceded to new shopping habits and made a deal with Amazon in July to sell its Kenmore appliances online.

Back at the store in East Northport, I wondered about the “1-year warranty” on the flashlight we bought, as well as the “$45 in surprise points” we received at the register toward a subsequent appliance purchase. These seemed to be promises of stability in the future. Are they worth the paper they’re printed on?

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.

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