OPED: Before its fall from grace, Sears offered a pathway to the American Dream

Karen Ann Cullotta
Chicago Tribune
FILE - In an undated file photo, Ruth Parrington, librarian in the art department of the Chicago Public Library, studies early Sears Roebuck catalogs in the library's collection in Chicago. The catalog Parrington is holding features women's fashion from 1902. Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses. (AP Photo/File)

When my late grandmother bought her first home in the early 1970s, she paid cash for the tidy, red brick bungalow with the life savings that she had earned working as a packer in the catalog department at the headquarters of Sears, Roebuck and Co. on Chicago’s West Side.

Her husband, my late grandfather, was a musician who taught accordion lessons and held factory jobs, but my grandmother’s steady work as a packer at the stately Sears building on Homan and Arthington was their Italian immigrant family’s financial bedrock for more than three decades.

Sears also was a pipeline to the middle class in my husband’s family. His father, a World War II veteran, worked as an appliance salesman at the company’s stores for more than 40 years, earning enough income to buy a suburban ranch home and send his three children to college.

But my family’s history with the storied retailer is whistling a sad tune in my ear these days after the parent company, Sears Holdings Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection earlier last week and announced the closure of another 142 stores belonging to a company that has withered to a husk of its former self.

Back in the day, the arrival of the Sears Wish Book catalog each fall filled me with wonder and yearning for the latest toys, and it offered a glimpse of the excitement that awaited me in the years to come, when I’d finally be old enough to wear the hipster outfits featured in the so-called Lemon Frog Shop.

The knowledge that my own grandmother was a Sears catalog order packer, and in my innocence, the purveyor of these coveted goods — the “Perma Prest” polyester jumpers, the Toughskin jeans — was nothing short of magical.

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But by the time I reached junior high, my grandmother had retired from her job at Sears, while my friends and I turned up our adolescent noses at the annual arrival of the bulky Sears catalog, having moved on to our new cool uniform of Levi’s, Adidas T-shirts and Converse trainers.

Our purchases were made during our excursions to Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect and Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, both of which offered up an intoxicating plethora of specialty shops — the County Seat, Lerner and Casual Corner, all of which preceded Sears in the slow march to the retail graveyard.

These days, my two teenagers shop almost exclusively online for their clothing and accoutrements, which arrive via Amazon with the ubiquitous white minivan somehow delivering the packages without me ever catching a glimpse of the driver.

Of course, the old-school print catalogs, which in the case of Sears, were extinguished in the 1990s, have been replaced by the iPhone, which delivers an instantaneous, 24/7 digital shopping experience with a quick swipe and a click.

With Sears now struggling for survival, I realize that I’m among the legions who abandoned the retailer, as the last time I can recall shopping at Sears was in 1998, when I was accompanied by my 89-year-old grandmother. She bought me a Sears Kenmore washer, dryer and refrigerator — proudly brandishing her employee discount card at the register.

My grandmother passed in March 2001, but the white, Kenmore refrigerator she bought me still is humming along, reminding me of a time when the world seemed a much kinder and safer place, and an immigrant’s job as a packer on the Sears catalog assembly line was still a pathway to the American Dream.