When Sears sold cars

The Sears Motor Buggy brought drivers into the automobile age for just $395.

Posted: Oct 15, 2018 10:27 PM
Updated: Oct 15, 2018 10:57 PM

For so many people who grew up before the internet, the Sears catalog WAS the internet.

The thick, heavy books had tools, dishes, TVs, clothes, appliances and just about anything else you'd need around house. They even sold houses for a while.

The Sears Christmas catalogs provided hours and hours of entertainment for kids, who could flip through the dog-eared pages and dream about playing with the latest toys.

News that the once-mighty 132-year-old company has filed for bankruptcy is triggering nostalgia for many former customers who grew up with the brand.

Sears' extraordinary history: A timeline

Rick Smith said the catalog gave his family the opportunity to buy things that were hard to get in Paris, Kentucky, a town of about 8,000 people about 20 miles from Lexington.

"We bought all of our televisions and appliances from Sears, as well as most of the clothes that I and my two brothers wore," he said. "The Sears Christmas 'Wish Book' was a favorite at our house, and I can recall picking out toys from that."

Back then, Sears didn't ship your purchases to your house. Your order would come to a local catalog store aand they would call so you could come pick it up.

"When you knew you had something really neat ... it felt like it was taking forever to arrive!"

Smith also remembered saving up his allowance in high school to buy suede and leather dark saddle shoes, so he'd have a nice pair for speech tournaments.

He got his first credit card from Sears when he was in college because his dad told him he needed to establish credit.

Smith said he was a bigger than average young man, so it was an added bonus that the store had a good big and tall selection.

"For many years thereafter, Sears Flexslax were my go to dress slacks, and I also bought dress shirts and a couple of suits there, too," Smith said.

Smith said he hasn't shopped at Sears in a while -- the store at his local mall closed a couple of years ago -- but he still feels a bit wistful about the bankruptcy news.

The arrival of the Christmas Wish Book was also a highly anticipated event for Alexina Navarro and her brother and sister. They would dutifully circle the things they wanted Santa to bring them, but Navarro and her sister pined for clothes like their friends would be wearing.

"We weren't interested in the toy section of the catalog," she said. "We desperately wanted to fit in with our peers' clothing choices, and not be ostracized."

Her mom made their clothes, and Navarro said they weren't like what other kids were wearing in the '60s and '70s.

"We should have been grateful, but we really weren't. We didn't appreciate going to the local fabric store and sorting through the patterns and cloth. We wanted to look like everyone else," she said.

Her mom tried to make outfits like the ones in the catalog, but they weren't the same.

Navarro remembers her mom buying her a warm winter coat from Sears because she was going to college in Portland, Oregon.

"My last purchase before heading off was a very bright kelly green wool coat that I got to choose myself!" she said.

Her dad taught her to drive in a Sears parking lot, and when her first used car needed brakes, "my dad took me into Sears Auto Shop to learn how to take care of these things like a big girl."

Navarro doesn't shop at Sears now. She said she's had a few car batteries replaced there over the years, but it's been a long time.

Daniel O'Donnell made what he called "the first major purchase of my young life" from the Sears catalog.

He saved his paper route earnings for a year to get the $35 to buy a 3-inch refractor telescope and an extra lens and filters. That was a lot of money for an 11-year-old in 1968.

"When I was a boy, I was a 'space kid,'" O'Donnell said, adding that he loved building models of NASA rockets.

He now does information security for a company that makes next-generation satellites.

O'Donnell said his dad worked for Sears when Allstate Insurance was part of the company. He still shopped there occasionally until last year, when the store in his town closed.

The bankruptcy isn't the end for the chain, but Sears and Kmart's parent company plans to close 142 of its worse performing stores as part of the bankruptcy plan.

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