I dropped by Sears in Santa Monica the other day to fill an eyeglass prescription. Welcome to middle age, I know. Having held out this long with serviceable vision, I’m comfortably resigned to my toting around my new personal vision-enhancing apparatus. I figured that Sears would be accessible and affordable and probably have a decent selection of eyeglass frames. The spoiler: I didn’t get my glasses at Sears after all. Their price and selection was just fine. But shopping there was almost an alien experience. The onetime king of all dry goods retailing seems today so socially and physically disconnected from the surrounding community that it once served. Worse, I simply couldn’t find a place to hitch my bike. It’s been a while since I’d been to Sears. I remember back when it had everything a family needed and proved it annually by delivering to our door a hefty catalog the size of a Yellow Pages phone book. Back was a time when you could order anything at all from the place, including houses. Yes, Sears sold not a few kit homes to Southern Californians; in fact, Sears was a key source for affordable housing during our growth-crazy 1920s. Even today I see these fine little clapboard examples all around neighborhoods in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica (like the Crescent model shown here).
Alas, home buyers in time sacrificed charm to expedience. WWII-era demand for housing demanded factory-style production right on the lot – forget waiting for orders and shipping – and local home builders rolled out the homes in such volume that Sears couldn’t possibly keep up.
That charming, clapboard prefab Sears design yielded to the ubiquitous balloon-framed stucco box…the ticky-tacky one still finds throughout the Southland nearby an airfield, factory, or defense plant. Those factories are all gone now, and Sears, too, seems consigned to that past.
On my visit, the dim interior suggested a retailer dying on the vine, withering perhaps in the long shadow of high brand-Q competitors like Target. In comparison, Sears seems practically embalmed, as if it’s waiting to serve customers strolling in from a distant era. Mantovani should be playing on the store’s grade school-quality PA system.
And the exterior is no better. The rear is completely denuded of any trace of human or animal comforts and the rear parking lot screams ‘no-man’s land.’ Only simple stanchions and a chain mark the path of the carriageway. There’s ample car parking, but who needs it?
If you’re a thrifty cyclist in need of a pair of eyeglasses, however, you’ll have to improvise your parking as I did. Find something, anything, to hitch your ride to because there are no racks available and no handrails in a pinch. The Colorado Boulevard side is bare of posts and meters, too, because that thoroughfare is no longer a local street; it primarily serves the new spiffy mall.
Severed From Community, Sears Tilts Toward Oblivion
Sears was the retailing behemoth of its day, headquartered in an eponymous tower in Chicago and sat astride the nation’s railway network. It maintained a sprawling distribution network anchored by massive hubs (as in Boyle Heights) that moved its freight while local stores penetrated into the heart of the community. Sears, you once had both the national and the local markets sewn up! What happened to ye?
Today, however, the households that once supported Sears are completely severed from it. The Santa Monica Freeway gobbled up working-class homes as it sliced a gouge through Santa Monica, and today it cuts Sears off with precision from neighborhoods that once gave it life.
The Civic Center complex has steadily expanded in a most unfortunate fashion to effectively put an island of concrete between southside customers and the Sears store. And the city’s commercial and light industrial zones to the north and east no doubt turn its back on Sears to purchase from Graingers and Staples.
Did Sears fail to keep up with changing tastes? Did it cast its lot with the railroad (that’s Chicago!) while nimble competitors migrated to the roads? Yes and Yes. Sears conceded taste to Target and efficiency to Walmart and nearly a century after its founding in 1893 it was an also-ran.
Global giants tossed in with the interstate. Ikea and Walmart and competitors elaborated a vast distribution system that capitalized on the Sears model but anchored it to the freeways. For Ikea, for example, that means a lot of particle board travels up and over the Grapevine to Los Angeles-area markets. But but cheap fuel, subsidies for the interstate, and a powerful trucking lobby keep that model economically sustainable.
Sears & Roebuck is not all history. Today it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears Holdings Corporation. (Chicago can-do meets Wall Street magic perhaps.) Sears Holding operates nearly 900 Sears-branded stores and moves its share of hardware and appliances by road, of course. But it’s not the Sears we knew. Ikea is a top-25 global brand while Sears is unable to break the top 100. It’s not even cited on most brand recognition surveys.
I chose a small retailer for my eyeglasses and paid approximately a fifty percent premium over the mass retailer. But I feel better about it in the end. I pull my ride through his gate where I can keep an eye on it. Returning recently for an adjustment I recognized just how much that premium was worth. My retailer is not a no-man’s land of concrete and freeway; it’s retailing the real old-fashioned way, and it appears sustainable as long as we support it. Few cyclists appear to patronize Sears, but I’ll bet my optical shop finds more than a few of its customers are local cyclists.