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As Sears declares bankruptcy, the retailers’ storied history in Spokane mirrors its rise and fall

November 22, 2018

Not that long ago, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was the world’s largest retailer, and its headquarters was the world’s tallest building.

First by mail order catalog and then through 3,500 big stores surrounded by big parking lots, Sears sold everything to everyone. Horse saddles and rifles. Prefab houses and cars. Washing machines and pet birds. Jeans and cream separators. It even started its own credit card, the Discover card, which had 20 million cardholders within four years.

Sears was Amazon before Amazon – decades before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ parents were born. It was the original American mammoth, the precursor to Kmart, Home Depot, J.C. Penney and Walmart.

Those days are over. Just as Sears helped vanquish the minimally stocked mom and pop stores of yesteryear, it too now faces defeat. Last month, the retailer declared bankruptcy in an effort to turn its finances around one last time. It’s closing 142 unprofitable stores and is in the midst of trying to convince its creditors that the company should be reorganized, not liquidated, parceled up and sold off. Even the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago is no longer Sears Tower. In 2009, it was renamed Willis Tower.

While Sears is a wholly American story, it’s a Spokane story as well. Its rise was more than evident here, as the retailer built the city’s most modern department store downtown only to abandon it 30 years later for the city’s first suburban shopping mall at NorthTown.

And it began on a pile of garbage.

Built upon wreckage

On April 28, 1917, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that “Sears-Roebuck Co.” had outgrown its warehouse on Division Street near Spokane Falls Boulevard, then called Trent, and “negotiations are under way for a larger storage plant for this city.”

The company had begun 24 years earlier in Chicago, in 1893, after a railroad agent named Richard Sears bought at a steep discount a box of unwanted watches. He sold the watches at a low price to his colleagues and made a good profit. So he started selling watches through the mail, and within a year partnered with a water repairman named Alvah Roebuck. Soon enough, the men were selling all kinds of things through the mail and out of a catalog.

In 1925, Sears-Roebuck expanded and opened its first retail stores, bringing people to its wares. Four years later, the company announced it would build a large retail store in downtown Spokane, on site of Electric Interurban Terminal Station, which was demolished beginning Sept. 5, 1929.

The store would be what the company called an “A” store – the largest store Sears was building at the time. Its design would mimic the Chicago-based company’s other stores: modern, Art Deco and concrete. Sixty years later, preservationists in Spokane would call it a “prime example of Sears’ top-of-the-line retail chain stores.”

But before it could be built, engineers had to do something about the landfill they were going to build it on. In the city’s early days, the site was a deep ravine, home to a creek that wriggled its way from its source near Sacred Heart hospital.

“It was never much of a stream – just a mere trickle – but when the spring thaws were on, it was a turbulent torrent for a week or two,” according to an October 1929 article in The Spokesman-Review.

The ravine was also a place Spokanites heaved their garbage. Following the Great Fire of 1889, suddenly there was a lot of garbage to dispose of, and the ravine was filled with items similar to what would later fill the Sears store.

“Debris from the fire zone, of course, included broken bricks, parts of old stoves, ruined safes, broken dishes, battered and twisted bed frames– everything that went into the construction and furnishing of early-day homes that that flames could not consume,” the Spokesman reported. “All went over the dump.”

When work began to build the Sears store, bits of fire wreckage were unearthed, and engineers realized how unstable the “made earth” was, forcing them to drive 940 cedar pilings into the former city dump, some as deep as 50 feet.

Soon enough, a $500,000, three-story Art Deco building with a five-story tower projecting from the main facade was built – Sears’ 72nd fully stocked department store in the country. Architectural historian Richard Longstreth said the 49 A stores that opened between 1928 and 1930 “formed the front rank in Sears’s aggressive expansion campaign.”

Louis DeWitt, the general manager of construction for Sears, led the project to build the new building. Coincidentally, as a young engineer fresh out of Princeton University, DeWitt had taken a job with the Great Northern railway in Montana and was sent to Spokane in 1905 to oversee construction of the new interurban station – the same one he had demolished and replaced with Sears.

“The long arm of coincidence has worked out few stranger combinations of circumstance,” the Spokane Daily Chronicle said.

When Sears opened on Feb. 26, 1930, both the Spokesman and Chronicle devoted special editions to the event, and noted that “200 employees will be ready to serve customers” at the store, which was stocked with “50 carloads of merchandise, including 46,000 different articles.”

One story in the Spokesman was headlined, “Take a year off and see store.”

The math went like this: “Assume the average person would require at least three minutes to ‘look over’ the average article. Some articles, such as hairpins, frying pans, candy bars, would not take so much time; others, such as cream separators, pianos and washing machines would take considerably more time. Three minutes is a pretty conservative average. On that basis it would take a year, 52 weeks of regular working days, to ‘look over’ the Sears, Roebuck & Co. merchandise – and this does not take into consideration time off for holidays.”

Enriching Spokane

Its success kept it growing in Spokane.

In 1935, it opened a new “mail order house” at 722 N. Division St., on the northbank of the river. In 1937, Union Pacific railway built a warehouse on Mallon Avenue just north of the Spokane County Courthouse specifically to lease to Sears. In 1938, Sears built yet another warehouse, this one at 811 E. Sprague Ave.

Clearly, Sears was profitable, but the wealth was shared locally and nationally, for both owners and employees.

Early on, the company started what it called a “profit sharing pension fund” to “encourage thrift among its employees, to permit them to share in the company’s profits, and to assist them in creating a financial reserve to help provide for eventual retirement,” according to the Spokesman-Review. After a year with the company, each employee could deposit 5 percent of their wages in the fund, and employee contributions were capped at $500 a year. Sears’ contribution was based on its annual profit, and the fund was used to purchase stock in Sears.

Through the fund, by 1953 Sears workers owned a quarter of the company’s stocks, which came to $456 million for 120,000 employees. Locally, 239 employees owned 12,239 shares, translating to $996,027, according to the newspaper.

Year by year, the company sold more goods, its stock grew and some of its employees benefited. By 1957, local employees had $1.66 million in the fund. That same year, the company had its third consecutive year of record sales, with $3.6 billion, up $500 million from the year before.

In 1959, the pension fund hit a record when it went over $1 billion. Locally, 200 employees were participating in the fund, and had more than $1.8 million invested in it. James Barker, who led the fund in Chicago, said a Sears truck driver had recently cashed out his pension. He had worked for Sears for 44 years and had put in $5,928 over that time. At retirement, he received $289,000, equivalent to more than $2.4 million in today’s dollars.

Sears had successfully secured its position as the place to shop for goods. Moreover, its central locations in the nation’s downtowns were convenient during the first half of the 20th century. Sears was evolving with America as its population shifted from rural to urban areas. Farmers without electricity thumbing through Sears’ 500-page catalogs were replaced with shoppers who wanted to visit the large, awe-inspiring department stores.

Sears had spent substantially to occupy America’s urban center, but things were changing.

With the close of World War II, wealth flowed into American bank accounts. Good, affordable automobiles were almost instantly within reach for many people, and the government began building roads at a pace never seen before in the nation’s, or the world’s, history. The city center, with its lack of parking, dingy old buildings and industrial underpinnings had become undesirable, a thing of the past.

To the suburban future

Like other American cities, Spokane’s “urban core lost much of its appeal, as shopping malls began to provide many of the services once available only downtown,” local historian Bill Youngs wrote in his book about Expo ’74, “The Fair and the Falls.”

In 1945, the country had just a few hundred suburban shopping malls. But between 1947 and 1952 the population of U.S. suburbs rose by 43 percent, and shopping malls followed suit. By 1958, there were 2,900, and in 1963 the number stood at 7,100, according to a 1985 article in the Journal of the American Planning Association. .

NorthTown was Spokane’s “first major suburban shopping center,” according to Youngs. What began with the “massive Albertson’s supermarket” in 1951 soon grew with new land being purchased. In 1954, the name “NorthTown” was made official with a formal opening and by 1958, 38 stores were in business there.

On April 30, 1958, the Spokesman-Review reported that NorthTown would grow even more with a $5 million expansion, and relayed word of a new Sears coming to town.

“Principal addition to NorthTown may be a $1,800,000 one-level department store, which may become the main Spokane store of Sears Roebuck & Co.,” the article reported, noting that Sears officials declined to comment. The article quoted the man in charge of NorthTown’s real estate acquisition, Earl McCarthy, who “indicated” that Sears would move.

“Sears has expressed a definite interest in finding a new location,” McCarthy said. The article said Sears’ move “would culminate 15 years of planning by the firm.”

Again, Sears was following changing trends in American lives. Its original Spokane location suited a population that got around largely by either walking or riding a streetcar. No parking was necessary, and the store didn’t have to be of epic proportions because people could only carry so much. The new store would cater to motorists.

McCarthy, the real estate agent, said the one-story retail store would encompass 250,000 square feet – two and a half times the size of the downtown Sears. The expansion also would bring an additional 2,500 parking spots to NorthTown, bringing its total to 3,000.

To make way for the much expanded mall, first the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had to be moved. The convent had come to Spokane in 1905 and occupied a building downtown at Main and Post, but moved to a 40-acre tract on Division and Wellesley in 1909 in what was a rural corner of town. By the 1950s, that had changed, and the sisters were surrounded by suburbs and commerce. McCarthy worked out a deal with them to build a 60,000-square-foot facility in the undeveloped Indian Trail neighborhood that houses Excelsior Youth Center.

In July 1958, Sears confirmed that it wanted a bigger suburban location before the city’s plan commission. McCarthy was there petitioning for a zone change to allow for the expansion. Joseph Kipper, manager of the local Sears, testified in favor, telling the commission that Sears thought the downtown location was inadequate as far back as 1946, noting there just wasn’t enough parking.

“We decided this was the one location we should try to get and forget the rest,” he said of NorthTown.

On June 18, 1959, the Chronicle ran a frontpage article, “New Store Is Planned by Sears in NorthTown,” and reported that construction of the “ultra-modern” store at NorthTown would be done in the fall of 1960 or spring of 1961.

Off with a bang

Another year passed before the new store’s groundbreaking took place.

“Flame, explosions, smoke and speeches were combined today in a colorful groundbreaking ceremony for the big new Sears, Roebuck & Co. retail store at NorthTown,” read a June 8, 1960 Chronicle article.

A 21-foot fake missile made a simulated launch, and it “belched smoke and flame as a recording of a launching was played.”

The Spokesman-Review reported on the missile as well, saying that “an ‘invisible voice’ began a count-down over the loudspeaker system and, at the word ‘Fire,’ great columns of flame erupted at the base of a mock missile which had been erected to one side of the speaker’s platform. The flame was followed by billows of white smoke, a chain-reaction eruption of small firecrackers, and then a series of ground-rocking bursts.”

One year later – three years after Sears confirmed it was moving – the store was ready to open.

On June 1, 1961, the Chronicle detailed the imminent opening of the $2.5 million, 226,000-square-foot building. A center aisle was two blocks long. The store would employ 500 people. A paved parking lot had room for 3,000 cars. A service station could work on 18 cars at a time. The store would have 52 departments, including one “strictly for saddles, and an optometrists’ shop.” The employee cafeteria had seating for 160 people. The store took 135,000 man-hours to build, 700 tons of structural steel, 8,000 cubic yards of concrete and 3,000 lighting fixtures.

As the new store was being stocked, six Finch and Java Temple birds escaped their cages.

“The birds, about the size of sparrows, made a rapid aerial inspection” of the building, the Chronicle reported. “In hot pursuit was a young clerk with a butterfly net. Four birds were eventually caught, one still at large today and the sixth apparently mistook a light blue wall for the open sky. A young woman store employee offered to give it a decent burial in her back yard.”

On June 17, 1961, at 5:40 p.m., the doors were locked for the last time at the downtown Sears, and a “few veteran employees will reminisce and say goodby to the building,” reported the Spokesman-Review, including two employees who worked there since it opened, Glenn Waugh and Emogene Ramsey.

Four days later, a Wednesday, the new store opened. The Spokesman detailed its offerings: “an indoor boating and water sports shop, refreshment bar, luggage department, office furnishings, camera supplies, teen-agers’ undergarments and foundation shop, drug store, book store, camera shop, hat bar and fur department.”

Before 4,000 people, City Councilman Jerome Kopet cut a broad lilac ribbon with golden shears.

“This is the culmination of a dream that started when we opened our first retail store here in 1930,” said Kipper, the store manager.

The day went well. Between 12,000 and 15,000 shopped on the first day. At one point, every one of the 3,000 parking spaces was filled.

“There were a few surprises,” Kipper said. “Bicycles were one. We didn’t know there were as many bicycles in Spokane. Hundreds of them were stacked around the building while the youngsters looked us over.”

Store officials estimated that about one child was misplaced every 20 minutes, “but the busy store intercommunications systems quickly linked all families again.”

Then it was over and “suddenly, the dancing cash registers were quiet,” the Spokesman-Review reported. Sales were four times the business of any previous day in Sears’ 30 years of retail in Spokane.

“I’ve just had a sudden thought,” Kipper said that first day. “Maybe we didn’t build this big enough.”

An unknown tomorrow

For years, Sears continued to expand, evolve and cater to Spokane shoppers.

In 1969, the company opened a branch on the South Hill, in the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center that now houses Trader Joe’s. Sears went in next door to the Sprouse-Reitz Variety Store, and had 4,000 square feet of space.

In 1973, the NorthTown location built an “Expo Shop” that “revolves around a landmark of the world’s fair – the old Great Northern clock tower – reproduced in a Styrofoam replica.” The shop was in the center of the store, and remained there during the fair’s run selling a variety of Expo merchandise.

In 1975, Sears opened a catalog surplus store at the University West Shopping Mall in the Spokane Valley.

In December 1978, Sears purchased 30.1 acres of vacant land in Hillyard for what “apparently” was a “major regional distribution center and warehouse,” according to the Spokesman. The company bought the land at the southwest corner of Francis and Freya, and the paper said it would it build a $3 million, 200,000-square-foot warehouse.

In 1997, the Spokane Valley Mall opened, and Sears was – and is – one of its anchor tenants.

After Sears moved from its downtown location, in September 1961, Sears sold the downtown building for $350,000 to the Comstock Foundation. Though the building was appraised at $600,000, Sears officials said the $250,000 difference was a “gift.” The foundation, in turn, would give it to the city for use as a library.

City Librarian R. Bruce Carrick said that the building “will serve wonderfully well as an interim library.”

Carrick suspected the library would outgrow the old Sears. And it did.

“I would guess the Sears building will amply cover our needs for the next two decades,” he said. “After that – if Spokane continues to grow, as I know it will – we would need another story on the Sears building or another building on the site.” But he suggested it was more likely a new main library would be erected on Havermale Island.

That never happened. Instead, in 1990, voters approved a $28.9 million bond measure that would lead to the building’s demolition. In its place is today’s downtown library. This year, voters again approved a library bond, this one for $77 million, and some of the money will go to renovating the 24-year-old building.

Fifty-seven years after it opened there, Sears remains at NorthTown and the Spokane Valley Mall. But for how long, no one knows.

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