With Sears gone, I'm missing an old family friend

J. H. Osborne • Oct 22, 2018 at 1:03 PM

Reading about Sears filing for bankruptcy was a bit like seeing the obituary of a long-ago family friend. It made me sad, with some underlying guilt. How did we lose touch? Did one of us drop the ball, or did life just take us down different paths?

That national news came on the heels of local news that the former Sears location at the Fort Henry Mall is under the wrecking ball. The closure of the Kingsport and Bristol, Va., Sears stores came in early 2017. It’s yet to be seen if Sears will survive in some form or fashion on the national scene. I don’t think I will notice either way. I guess that’s what has left me feeling blue. I’m not sad to see the old Sears section of the mall torn down. I hope it signals something bigger and better coming our way.

By the time that store opened with the “new” mall in 1976, Sears wasn’t much on my 14-year-old radar. My family still shopped some at Sears. But not nearly at the rate we once had. For me, the heyday of Sears — which grown-ups in my family as often as not called “Sears and Roebuck” — was when “our” store was at the corner of Eastman Road and East Sevier Avenue. Today it’s the post office. But throughout my preteen years it was a regular destination.

It had opened as Sears, Roebuck and Co. on September 18, 1963 when then-Mayor Hugh Rule snipped a fabric ribbon made by Tennessee Eastman, according to a news article. Prior to the ribbon-snipping, the Sullivan High School Band had played for 30 minutes. At that moment in history, one in every six American households held a Sears credit account. Prior to the opening of “one of the most modern department stores in the state,” Sears had operated only a catalog sales office downtown at 214 E. Market St. Neighbors in Oakwood Forest initially opposed the rezoning of the property, which had been expected, if developed at all, to be an apartment complex. The location was described as in keeping with Sears’ strategy of building away from downtowns on sites with ample parking.

I grew up in Borden Village, near the park. We were about midway between downtown and the Greenacres Shopping Center area. We shopped in both. I’m not sure Sears was technically part of the latter. I suppose it was “Greenacres adjacent” in real estate parlance. A big difference to me between downtown and the Greenacres/Sears areas: by the time I was 10 or 12 I was allowed to ride my five-speed, banana-seated bike to Greenacres. OK, maybe I wasn’t really allowed to the first few times. But when I casually mentioned that’s where I’d been one day, Dad assured Mom I would be OK doing so. After all, it was a quick dart through the park, then up the sidewalks of East Sevier, where I could cross Eastman Road at the light. It all coincided with when I first discovered popular music and 45 rpm records. I bought a lot at Sears.

Sears by that point was a familiar place. Our “chalet” eight-person tent came from there. So did our floor-model stereo, television, first above-ground pool, and Dad’s Craftsman tools. At some point Sears had a sale during which a stand outside served free (or very cheap, say 1-cent or 10-cent) hot dogs. Aunt Mary and Uncle Calloway were visiting from Indianapolis and heard all day about going to Sears for dinner. She laughed about it for years later. The way we’d played up those hot dogs, she was expecting something extraordinary — only to be served a wiener on a bun, mustard or ketchup optional. Some of our “school clothes” came from Sears, My Sears, the one at Eastman and East Sevier. That’s where I first used a credit card. Dad’s Sears card. To pick out and purchase school clothes on my own. I made some regrettable choices that day. Black “brushed corduroy” pants with red stitching and a matching jacket seemed cool, to me, at the time. My older brother laughed until he had tears in his eyes and said I’d get my ... well, that outfit wouldn’t go over well on the playground. My sister, repeatedly voted “best dressed” in her class, just shook her head no. But Mom and Dad let me keep it. I got to wear it to church a few times. I kept it, like a trophy won for awkwardness, until just a couple of years ago.

Now I’m sorry I let it go. It sort of summed up my questions about what went wrong between us and Sears. 

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. 

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