My first retail job was at Sears during the 1995 holiday season. I was 16 and had been itching for an after-school job. I had worked at Dairy Queen, but Sears would be a grown-up job. I would need to wash my hair, look customers in the eye and adhere to a strict 30-minute lunch break at the mall.
First, I attempted to get a retail job at “cooler” mall establishments. Competition was fierce. Victoria’s Secret, the Limited, even J.C. Penney was full for the holiday season.
So I went to Sears. Sears was not cool, which meant I was unlikely to ever run into anyone from my high school there. But it was a fixture, and it seemed sensible. I reckoned Sears had probably existed at the Great Lakes Mall in suburban Cleveland since the mid-1800s, selling maternity ready-to-wear and crisp-but-affordable bed linens to the Northeast Ohio masses, who then took their purchases home in covered wagons.
I got the job through one of my best high school friends, Jen, who worked in Sears’s prestigious customer service department. With her skyscraper GPA, Jen ranked No. 2 in our class — making her competent to hold a position normally filled by retired paralegals. I hoped for a semi-respectable position in handbags or home decor. Departments like juniors and jewelry were certain to be full. I wanted an adult position. I would wear my church clothes and spend my shifts talking about whatever Katie Couric said to the masses that morning.
“Garden tools or hardware?” a bored HR rep asked me, scratching her cuticles. We sat on folding chairs in the Sears warehouse, surrounded by treadmills and fake Christmas trees. I stared blankly for a moment, considering these decidedly unsexy options. Hardware is needed year-round, so the commissions would be stable.
“Hardware,” I said proudly to the HR lady whose name I had already forgotten. She put her clipboard down and pointed an artificial nail to the signature line on my application. I signed vigorously. She leaned over to a wire shelf and pulled down a box full of red polo shirts, with the Sears Craftsman logo embroidered on the right side.
“Here’s your new uniform,” HR Lady said, rummaging through the box. “We only have extra-large,” she added, eyeing my 5-foot-tall wiry teen frame.
“That’s fine,” I said, masking my disappointment.
I tried to embrace my assignment, learning minutiae about hand tools. Socket wrenches came in both standard and metric. A “Dremel tool” was actually a proprietary brand, and the Sears version was called a “rotary tool.” The rotary tool could make pretty designs in wood. At least, that is what the packaging implied. I never once saw any of the tools I hawked in action, save for the times my dad whacked at wasps nests with a hammer. While I could tell you every single size of pliers we had in stock, I had no idea how any tools were actually used.
All Sears Craftsman hand tools came with a lifetime warranty.
“Lifetime?” I asked incredulously during my first shift.
Judy, a middle-aged woman with a bobbed blonde wig worked alongside me during day shifts. Judy had sold Craftsman tools for a decade, yet she also had no idea how to use any of them.
“Lifetime,” Judy said, smiling so her metal fillings showed. This lifetime warranty meant I spent many shifts gingerly taking filthy hammers and socket wrenches out of the hands of mechanics and carpenters.
In my first week, I was also stunned to find the wood shop teacher from my high school working in power tools.
“Call me Bill,” he said, giving me a tight squeeze. Low-level sexual harassment abounded in hardware but I held my own, and the guys did not bother me too much. I met Jason from the paint department, and we started dating, but that did not stop guys three times my age frequently asking me out on dates and occasionally proposing marriage. After Jason went away to Kent State and I went to Ohio University, I never saw him again.
I continued to work at Sears after I graduated high school, whenever I came home from college. Once, while home for the holidays in December 1997, my dad had a rare kind of stroke — he tore an artery in his neck and almost died.
I showed up for a shift in Hardware two days after. Bill was working. He greeted me with a smile and usual borderline-appropriate friendliness. I lasted five minutes before breaking into tears and telling Bill what had happened.
“Oh honey, just go home,” Bill said, tears in his eyes. He hugged me and assured me he could ring up hammers and drill bits in my absence. I realized Bill, Judy and the other Sears lifers had become like family. They got excited when I came home on college breaks. They watched me grow up and listened to me stress about roommates, boyfriends and potential graduate schools. I went through so many changes in those years, but every time I came back home to Sears, everything was as it had been when I left.
Toward the end of college, I finally gave up Sears for a better-paying factory job. Instead of pushing Craftsman tools that summer, I spent eight hours a day pressing O-rings onto a ball valve. I still frequented the mall in my leisure time. Before I moved to Chicago, I made one last mall visit. I walked past Claire’s, past J.C. Penney, past Spencer’s toward Sears. I ran my hands across the bedazzled blouses in juniors. I inhaled the leather purses as I continued back to hardware.
Once I was there I did not see anyone I knew. I walked the aisles a final time, past the fancy, slate gray Craftsman tool chests with expensive ball bearings. I walked out the back door, looking a final time at the towers of circular saws and giant red Sears Craftsman signs hanging from the rafters. Those signs had been there since my childhood and were certain to be there long after I was gone.
I was shocked when I heard Sears filed for bankruptcy. The Craftsman tools alone had always been a metaphor for my relationship with the store: lifetime warranty. I always assumed Sears would be eternal. It was trustworthy; it was America. I even considered Sears a backup life plan. If everything fell apart — if I could not get into graduate school, or find a job as a researcher — at least I could go back to Sears to wear a giant red polo and sell socket wrenches.
The demise of Sears reminds me that nothing is forever. Even a fail-safe Craftsman hammer might be replaced. I mourn the loss of Sears because it was a steady hand for me when I needed it — through my father’s stroke, boyfriends and breakups, college and graduate school applications — much more, I suspect, than the cooler stores might have been.
Melanie LaForce is the author of “Corn-Fed: Cul-de-sacs, Keg Stands, and Coming of Age in the Midwest.” You can follow her on Twitter @rileycoyote.