I remember a poem by Robert Frost from my days at Powell Valley High School called “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” As I recall the lines from so many years ago, the main point Frost offered up in his prose was the suggestion that in life the only real constant is change. We tend to become comfortable with things, but those things are fleeting and eventually we have to adapt to something different when the standard we so richly cherished fades away to be replaced by something else.
Okay, I’m an outdoor reporter, so I don’t want to get too deep in my evaluation of this thing, but somehow those lines from Frost found their way to the surface of my brain this week when I walked into the Charleston Sears store. The Charleston store, along with several hundred others across the country, is shutting down. I’ve been visiting the store for the last six weeks looking for deals. I found a few. I now have several items from the Craftsman tool line which I’ve had my eye on for some time and the going out of business prices caused me to pull the trigger.
But this week’s visit was different. There was no merchandise left to pick through. Signs up around the store said “Fixture Sale.” The shelves were now bare of all merchandise and the shelves themselves were items up for bid on a good deal, likely destined to some other store or warehouse with a new life of holding any number of other items in the future.
There were vast spaces of floor between those shelves and racks. The cash register islands which once whirred proudly with the sounds of American commerce were still there, but now silent. A few of the remaining store employees rearranged different items, sweeping, cleaning, and helping to write the last chapter of a store which for many of us had become an icon.
I stood in the tool department–the first one you encountered if you entered from Quarrier Street and thought of all of the previous times I had been there. I remember walking through the aisles and aisles of gleaming, shiny Craftsman hand tools. Box end wrenches, 150 piece socket sets, hammers, crowbars, saws, more screwdrivers than a man could ever need once lined those shelves. There used to be a 30 foot table which showed off belt sanders, chop saws, grinders, and other amazing power tools. Across the main aisle was the furniture area where those bright red or black upright tool boxes, tall cabinets, sturdy work benches, cabinets, and full on workshop makeover systems were on display. Down at the other end were the yard tools like weed whackers, lawnmowers, and leaf blowers. I remembered racks of rakes, hoes, square point shovels, axes, and splitting mauls. It used to be like a toy store for big boys. But now, all of it was gone. Just gone. I couldn’t help but feel a little sad about what I was witnessing.
Oh sure, I had visited other departments of the store during my time. I had purchased most of my major appliances from Sears–many of them in that very store. I never bought a TV there, but I watched a lot of Tennessee and WVU football games on the endless wall of screens in the electronics department while waiting on the wife to shop around the mall. We bought a vacuum cleaner there and had to return repeatedly to buy replacement bags.
The shutdown of the Charleston Sears store may be only the first step. Recent reports have indicated the entire Sears empire is struggling to survive. They aren’t alone. Other longtime merchants like J.C. Penny and Macy’s also seem to be straining to squeeze out a profit. There are a myriad of reasons analysts offer for the decline, but the biggest is undeniably the Internet. Traditional storefronts simply cannot compete with the prices, convenience, and low overhead enjoyed by on-line competitors. There’s a whole new generation of shoppers coming into their earning years and they’ve learned from birth to shop with a mouse and not their feet.
I shoulder some of the blame. Yes, I buy things online all the time. It makes it far easier to compare prices between a half dozen websites with several swift clicks of a mouse rather than to dedicate an entire day–or even several days to moving from place to place. The only real advantage the storefront had on the computer was the chance to hold an item in your hand and check out its quality in person. Most people were using the store to do just that–then ordering the same item on-line at a lower price. I’m not holding a grudge there. Money doesn’t come easy for a working man and the further you can stretch a hard-earned dollar, the better. That’s capitalism. Heck, that’s life.
So I bid farewell to the Sears tool department I so very much loved. Just like Robert Frost taught me in Jerry Clark’s A-P Literature Class back in 1985-86, nothing gold can stay.