I can’t help but reminisce about Sears.
I’m not old enough to remember the Sears Roebuck heyday, but I do remember sitting down in my grandmother’s living room with a Sears Christmas catalog every fall, circling the toys I wanted for Christmas.
The once-proud retail giant filed for bankruptcy Monday, signaling the end of an era.
If we’re being honest, it was Richard Sears, the railroad station agent who founded the company in 1886, who started us down the slippery slope that leads us away from the main street, mom-and-pop merchants and towards the corporate behemoths that syphon dollars and jobs out of rural hometowns like ours. And it’s a journey that’s been nearly a century and a half in the making.
Still, you can’t help wringing your hands as Amazon does to Sears what Sears did to so many of those main street merchants and wonder where it all winds up.
Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire who struck gold with Amazon and has defined the emergence of e-commerce as a leading force in the American economy, is not much different than Sears. Bezos and Sears are both entrepreneurs with the right vision at the right time, and Americans’ desire to indulge on mass-produced goods at discount prices has fueled their paths to success.
In Sears’ case, rural Americans were tired of making their own clothes and furniture as our society became more industrialized and modernized near the end of the 19th century, and Sears Roebuck was there to fulfill their needs.
In Bezos’ case, Americans are simply tired of going to the store.
Sears made life easier for American consumers, and Amazon has made life easier still. Along the way, we’ve moved full circle. The original Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogs made it possible for Americans to “shop” from the comforts of home, buying everything from their Sunday dresses to their guns from the catalog. Then, in the post-World War II era, the company’s surge of new storefronts helped usher in the new era of shopping malls in suburban America. Now, many of those same malls are vacant — or well on their way — as Americans go back to shopping from the comforts of their home, this time via the internet rather than by mail.
Ultimately, things will shift again, and Jeff Bezos’ legacy will fade just as Richard Sears’ legacy has faded. It’s simply the nature of the beast.
In the meantime, it should be hard to feel sympathy for the Sears company, which has already done to independently-owned small businesses what Amazon is doing today. As you look around vacant main streets in small towns like Oneida’s, and as you drive through the heart of this small town’s modern retail district and note how many retailers do not have roots within the community, you realize that this didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen with the rise of Amazon, and it didn’t even happen when Sam Walton found success with his string of big box stores. In truth, the fate was written before the railroad ever came to the northern Cumberland Plateau and gave rise to a new town where virgin oak forests had once stood — it was written when a railroad agent named Richard Sears and a watchmaker named Alvah Roebuck first got together in the 1880s.
My parents’ generation has reminisced about the downfall of Cooper’s and other down-home businesses that were once mainstays of the local community before ultimately falling to the trend that Sears and Roebuck started and that Walton continued. My generation will reminisce about the downfall of Sears. My children’s generation may well reminisce about the downfall of Walmart. And, along the way, the lifeblood of small towns like ours will continue to dry up, little by little as our society moves further and further away from the moms and pops who built these towns.