Imagine if Amazon or Wal-Mart filed bankruptcy? It seems unthinkable, but the same could have been said about Sears for much of the 20th Century. But last week, Sears filed for bankruptcy. By the time it happened, it wasn’t a huge surprise. Still, the news has WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson feeling a bit nostalgic.
My wife and I used to live up near the Derita neighborhood northeast of uptown. Back in its early days Derita was a stop for railroad trains. I remember hearing stories about how once in a while the train would stop and unload a Sears Roebuck house.
Basically, it was a kit – all the lumber and shingles and hardware you needed to build an entire home. All you had to do was haul it to your piece of land and put it together. There’s at least one Sears Roebuck house still there, up on Gibbon Road. It’s been around almost 90 years. It was made to last.
When I was growing up in Georgia, a trip to Sears was a big deal. We didn’t have much money and so we bought our clothes and such at cheaper places. But my dad made a living for years as a carpenter, and he could fix anything from a toilet to a transmission. When he needed a tool, he bought Craftsman tools at Sears. They were a long-term investment. He knew they would hold up.
We live in a different world now, for better and worse, so I guess what happened last week was inevitable – Sears filed for bankruptcy. The company has been around for 132 years. It reached into every corner of America in a way no company had before. Every city of any size had a store, and the famous Sears catalog meant people far from the city could shop for almost anything. My mom and dad, who grew up as sharecroppers, remembered the Sears catalog as a dream book, full of things they might buy if they ever got off the farm. The old catalogs went to the outhouse, where the pages were useful in another way.
I didn’t know this until the other day, when people brought it up on social media, but Sears also made it possible for black people in the South to bypass white-owned stores that wouldn’t let them shop. It was a great American leveler, a touchstone almost everyone had in common.
But Sears got outflanked by others who did the same things faster or cheaper. Walmart is a supersized version of the old Sears store. Amazon is the catalog times infinity. Sears could never catch up. By the end, it even sold off the Craftsman name. But that wasn’t enough to keep it solvent.
In many ways we have built our lives around things that are not meant to last. We drive to work in leased cars, toting newly traded-in phones, eating lunch with sporks. We have choices and conveniences that make our lives easier and often better. If you give me now or 100 years ago, I’m taking now every time.
But then again, when my dad died in 1990, I kept a bunch of his Craftsman tools. Some of them are 50 or 60 years old. They outlasted him, and they’ll outlast me. People, companies, empires – they all crumble. But a well-made thing can last just about forever. And when you hold one in your hand, it can connect us to the way the world used to be.
Tommy Tomlinson’s commentaries appear every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. They represent his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to his commentaries in the comments below. You can also email Tommy at email@example.com.