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Speaking Volumes: Sears and the rise and fall of the department store

With an enduring American retail giant such as Sears about two months into bankruptcy proceedings, it prompts reflection on the fate of department stores nationally.

Are they becoming a thing of the past since shopping habits have changed in the age of online commerce?

Founded by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck in 1893, Sears, Roebuck & Co. began as a mail order catalog.

Sears.jpg
The fall of Sears prompts reflection on the fate of department stores nationally. AP

Among the famous items available in the catalog were kit houses, which contained most of the materials needed to build a house, including pre-cut framing timber, plasterboard and roofing shingles. Known as Sears Modern Homes, these kits were sold through 1940, and some still stand today — mostly in Illinois and other Midwestern states.

The Sears catalog was also known for its “Christmas Wishbooks,” which included toys and games for sale during the holiday season. Not to mention watches and jewelry, sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, bicycles, baby carriages and clothing.

See the library’s collection of “Everyday Fashions, as Pictured in Sears Catalogs” to see what the mail order fashions looked like in each decade. To see photos of catalog homes and many other products, as well as more on the history of Sears stores and its catalog business, see the extensive Sears Archive online at searsarchive.com.

The department store as a concept was born in Paris in the mid-1800s and spread across Europe and America in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s.

The concept grew in popularity over the decades — a large store containing many different departments of goods (rather than small family-owned shops that sold very specific goods) with a focus on artful displays, services and even tearooms — making shopping a pleasurable leisure activity rather than a mundane necessity.

After the boom years of post-World War II and the 1950s, stores such as Sears, Macy’s, Saks and Nordstrom became highly popular shopping destinations and steadily grew through the end of the 20th century when they began to also employ online commerce.

Bealls, founded in Bradenton, has enjoyed national success for more than 100 years, eventually adding outlet stores to its business model.

However, other models of online-only commerce such as Amazon and eBay began to compete with traditional brick-and-mortar stores and have now surpassed them in sales volume, popularity and name recognition.

The demise of the department store may not be immediately eminent, but it faces a great deal of pressure to compete in today’s marketplace.

For more on how online commerce has become the new standard, read “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” by Brad Stone.

To enjoy a throwback look at the heyday of department stores, watch the PBS show “Mr. Selfridge” based on the true story of the founder of Selfridges London, which has stood the test of time and is still in business today.

Find out more at www.mymanatee.org/library.

Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday in the Bradenton Herald. Ericka Dow is an information services supervisor at the Downtown Central Library.

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