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Sears was once the biggest retailer in this country. I can remember going to Sears as a kid. I remember buying my first refrigerator in a Sears. But I'm not sure where I'd find one now. The chain has had to shut down most of its stores. And that's now happening in a mall in Illinois, the state where Sears opened its first big store a century ago. From WBEZ in Chicago, Michael Puente reports.
MICHAEL PUENTE, BYLINE: Here in Chicago, there are still a lot of reminders that Sears was once a dominant retailer. The red brick building that headquartered its vast, 40-acre catalog campus on the city's west side for decades and was the home of its first store remains. But perhaps the biggest symbol sits smack-dab in Chicago's downtown Loop area. Today, it's known as Willis Tower. But for many Chicagoans, like Laura Sabransky (ph), it's...
LAURA SABRANSKY: Sears Tower. And I will always call it that.
PUENTE: The 108-story high-rise was once the tallest in the world. And soon, Sears won't have any large department stores left in all of Illinois. Just outside of Chicago in the suburb of Schaumburg sits Sears' last remaining Illinois store. Sabransky knows this store well, having grown up in the next town over.
SABRANSKY: My mom and I would go there, and then all the smells and experiences. When you first approached it, you would smell the rubber from the auto center. And then you come in, and there's the night and candy counter.
PUENTE: Over the years, Sabransky continued to shop at Sears at Woodfield. Come November 14th, the doors here are closing, marking the end of a 97-year run.
GARY HOOVER: Everyone, everyone shopped at Sears. It's where you bought your tools. It's where you bought your paint. The big stores, they smell like popcorn because they sold popcorn on the main floor.
PUENTE: That's Gary Hoover, director of the American Business History Center. He says Richard Sears began selling watches by mail order in Minneapolis in 1886. Sears moved his company to Chicago the next year. When Robert Wood joined him years later, Sears transformed into a brick-and-mortar retailer focusing on the entire family, not just women like its competitor, Marshall Field's.
HOOVER: From the outset, those first Sears stores starting in the early to mid-1920s carried a lot of stuff for men, a lot of stuff for children, a lot of stuff for women. And the other thing is they weren't downtown. They were out where they could have a parking lot because people were just beginning to have cars.
PUENTE: Sears grew to some 3,000 stores. But as early as the 1970s, the company's dominance began to slide when Walmart, Target and now, of course, Amazon boomed. In 2013, hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert took over. But within a few years, Sears filed for bankruptcy protection because it was straddled with debt, topping more than $5 billion. In early 2019, Lampert and his hedge fund bought Sears out of bankruptcy, but then closed 96 stores. At last count, fewer than 40 remained. Again, Gary Hoover.
HOOVER: They rise and fall. And the stronger and more powerful they are, the longer it takes them to fall. It's really a part of the American fabric.
PUENTE: Inside Woodfield Mall, the bright-blue Sears sign still shines. Though, much of the store is empty, with yellow and red signs reading, everything must go. Jim Estep, who worked here as a teenager, came to look for bargains.
JIM ESTEP: It is the last store in Illinois. It used to be a flagship store if I recall right. So it's unfortunate to see this happening to these stores.
PUENTE: Sears' parent company, Transformco, plans to redevelop the Woodfield property for its real estate value. And while the Sears name isn't disappearing entirely, the days of popcorn-aroma-filling department stores is quickly fading.
For NPR news, I'm Michael Puente in Chicago.
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