Missing Kmart and Sears
by Kimberly Elsifor
From the July, 2019 issue
I rode the bus past Sears the other day. The lot where my coworkers parked was empty, the receiving dock was closed, the double doors that we used to enter and exit at the beginning and end of every shift locked.
I went to work at the Briarwood Sears after leaving the Kmart on Washtenaw in Pittsfield Twp. Once retail giants with loyal workers and customers, they couldn't cope with the new millennium.
My mother worked at Kresge, Kmart's parent, in the late 1950s, I started at Kmart in 1977, and my sister hired in at a different Kmart in 1994. It was kind of our family legacy.
Sears was a big part of my life even before I worked there. In the ninth grade, I would often go to Briarwood when I skipped a whole school day. I'd browse Sears (entertaining fantasies of one day owning a home), Macy's (one day being rich), and JCPenney (dreaming of the prom and wedding dresses I would one day buy there).
I left Kmart in 2003, a year after its bankruptcy, and started at Sears in 2006. By then, both companies were under the questionable management of hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lampert's ESL Investments. The familial, comfortable, and likeable atmosphere became tense, and the fun went out of working there. I mourned them even before Sears' bankruptcy last fall.
Kmart was my first "adult" job. I was fifteen, and with my work permit I could work as many hours as I could handle. Kmart felt like Disneyland. If I could come up with the money, I could buy anything I wanted-clothes, jewelry, makeup, radios, and TVs.
But more than that, the people who worked there were nice to me. I wasn't used to that. I had grown up in a cold, abusive environment. I guess that is why I accepted the meager compensation. Supposedly we could earn a biannual merit raise of a nickel or a quarter an hour, but
the evaluations often didn't happen, so the raises rarely came.
It didn't matter much, since I was handing over almost every dime I earned to my mom, who always reminded that without my earnings we would be homeless. So before I knew it, between second jobs, finishing college, and caring for my mom, ten years passed.
When I'd started, the Washtenaw Kmart was pretty, with mannequins, displays, and neatly organized merchandise placed for easy maneuvering. Toward the end, they were neglecting the building and jamming in more and more merchandise.
By then, I'd finally been promoted: I ran my own K Café. Of course, no one told me about the mess left by the former manager. Corporate had started closing stores and pushing people to take early retirement buyouts. Even our 401(k) seemed to be in doubt.
An Ann Arbor jury would later convict the company's chairman of deceiving investors about overspending on inventory and delaying payments to suppliers to make cash flow look better than it was. That explained the stock we'd seen hidden from inventory in strange places, mixed in with customer layaways and inside a broken large freezer that I could never get permission to repair, replace, or remove.
I left during this mess. It was no longer the place I had known for all those years. Then, a few years later, I went to work at Sears.
Though Sears, too, was owned by ESL, it seemed to be doing better than Kmart. When I started, it looked almost the same as it did when I used to skip school there.
Within a year, though, I noticed the same slow decline I'd lived through at Kmart. Too much stock would come in, then be hidden or lost come inventory time. Painters would start work, then leave before all that needed painting was done. Only part of the store would be recarpeted.
Stores began closing, and I wasn't surprised when the word came of bankruptcy. I quit before they closed the doors
I recently saw an old coworker who was one of the few to stay to the bitter end; she now works at Macy's. I see others from Sears, but we don't talk about the store; there is a taste of bitterness that remains. When I see coworkers from Kmart some of us still have fond memories, but more feel sadness.
I hold onto some good memories, and feel rather stupid for other memories. But when people ask me, I tell them that once, Sears and Kmart were the best of their kind.
[Originally published in July, 2019.]
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