Neal Rubin: The world’s first Kmart is dying from neglect
Barbara Walker found the plastic tubs she needed to store her Christmas decorations, but in a cluttered and confusing aisle at the Garden City Kmart, it took 10 minutes to find the matching lids.
“This doesn’t make sense,” she said. Not common sense and certainly not business sense, and it was too easy to see Thursday why the blue light is going out at the Bethlehem of discount stores.
Shelves stood empty. Floors were gouged. Customers shivered. Even the lottery vending machine was out of order.
The nation’s first Kmart stretches most of a block on Ford Road, just west of Middle Belt. A huge crowd gathered for its grand opening on March 1, 1962, and shoppers left with furniture tied to the roofs of merchandise-stuffed cars.
On Wednesday, the uninvitingly named Sears Holdings Corp. announced that it was closing 108 of the remaining 941 Kmarts, including the stores in Plymouth, Roseville, Waterford and Westland and the visibly aging granddaddy of them all.
The liquidation sale begins Friday. The end will come in late March. The shelves will grow more bare, the floors more cracked. The Internet will put another notch in its mail-order belt — though really, Kmart’s problems began long before Amazon became a dot-com and not just a river.
Target is fresher than Kmart, Wal-Mart is cheaper, Meijer is stronger. You can find all three of them and a Costco on Middle Belt within 3.8 miles of the spot where Walker thought she had located a proper tub-and-lid combination, only to discover that the lid was broken.
An 80-year-old great-grandmother from Inkster, she also patronizes the store in Westland that’s going under. When she ventures upscale, she visits the Westland Macy’s, one of four in Michigan and 68 nationwide to get its pink slip the same day as the Kmarts.
“Where am I supposed to shop?” she asked.
There were no salespeople nearby to offer suggestions.
Cold and cracked
The too-few staffers on hand Thursday were friendly, despite the bad news they had absorbed the day before.
They were also cold. One wore a stocking cap, all wore fleeces or sweatshirts or jackets, and one walked briskly toward the far end of the store wearing stretchy knit gloves.
She was asked if the store was always so cold. “The last year and a half, it has been,” she said. “And this is like summer!”
The employees, of course, cannot repair furnaces. They can’t lay floor tile, either.
One remarkable set of cracks stretched 62 feet, across that many 12-by-12-inch vinyl squares, from a wall of baby toys to a rack of $9.99 iVision reading glasses.
There was a circular hole near the book department you could sink a putt in, assuming you’d bought a dozen Nitro balls for $8.39 in sporting goods. Beneath the shower curtains, the floor was buckled, as though an actual shower leaked there.
James Kaplan of Detroit stopped in front of the curtains on his way to find a tablecloth. He’s 67, a GM retiree who remembers buying tires at the store for his Chevy Impala when he was 18 years old and the building was 5.
“This store, all it needs is some sort of redecorating,” he said. “Maybe a different layout.”
Or maybe a different era. Kaplan had already put a tablecloth on hold at the Bed, Bath & Beyond in Allen Park. It looked good online.
A dozen heart-shaped boxes of candy had six wide shelves to themselves in what was supposed to be the Valentine section. Other displays were so jumbled and cluttered it was hard to tell what they were actually meant for.
It was impossible not to find signs of decay and portents of doom. But you could also find an assortment of merchandise that would have seemed astonishing 54 years ago, or next to impossible even last week across much of the planet.
Special K Protein Shakes, 8-pack, $12.99. Finding Dory plastic wristwatch, $14.99. Fit-Flex Depends with the “new comfortable fit,” 42-count, $25.99. Kenmore clothes dryer, $299. Pressure Pro pressure cooker, $79.99.
“Get a Crock-Pot,” a woman in a lime-colored parka was telling her friend. “It’ll change your life!”
They heard something like that in Garden City when John F. Kennedy was president. Get a Kmart. It’ll change retailing.
Then retailing will change, because everything does — and you can’t buy a warranty for progress.