The Ouroboros Box

The glory days, before the fall

The Sears outlet at the Northridge Mall is no more.  The latest in a series of closures following the restructuring of the company in 2017.

Though it retains a shitty food court, the mall is now without one of its two anchor tenants.   We already kind of know how this will end.  Being the Valley, I don’t anticipate Google riding to our rescue.

Once the Amazon of its day, Sears has been a great declension a century in the unmaking, reflected in its architecture.

As it fell out of favor, the in-house brands and subsidiary businesses: Allstate, DieHard, Craftsman, Kenmore, and Discover Card, were sold off one by one in debt restructurings. The corporate headquarters in Chicago, once the tallest building in the world, was vacated twenty years after being built and downsized to an office park in the suburbs.

Starbucks Center, Seattle

Ironically, Sears leaves behind a terrific portfolio of civic architecture in the form of massive Art Deco mail-order distribution plants now rapidly being repurposed nationwide as live/works lofts, creative office space and in another irony, retail. Many of these buildings were vacant for decades.  Think how different it may have turned out if Sears had held on to the real estate. It was uniquely positioned to take advantage of re-urbanization.

Crosstown Lofts, Memphis

Izek Shomoff is developing the 13 acre Boyle Heights site as a 1000 unit mixed-use campus with predictable bells and whistles.

Sears’s lasting legacy will prove to be its timeless line of mail-order Craftsman houses,  pre-cut, delivered on railroad cars, and easily assembled by road gangs.  Most of them are with us today, 100 years on, a testament to indestructible aesthetics.  They spawned countless imitations.  Historic Los Angeles and Pasadena are fecund with variations on these designs. It’s the default residence of our collective dreaming, and thereby television locations: my life, we tell ourselves driving past, would be oh, so perfect if we lived in that house.

Just as an aside, how popular a housing solution would this be?  With small alterations for local codes, the plans are perfectly valid today.  Build them in clusters of six around a common yard. Cluster the clusters around a common greenway.  
If you could go back to the 1980s and tell the board of directors, get out of the malls, you will be replaced by an electronic mail-order catalog, your end is in your beginning, return to first principles. Your value is old real estate and love for your catalog and always will be. Would anyone listen, even if you gave them second sight? Or would the snake just keep eating its tail?

11 thoughts on “The Ouroboros Box”

  1. –Pretty sure Sears spun off its real estate holdings into a separate entity years ago. FWIW…….Northridge Mall sits on a 1/2 mile x 1/4 mile footprint – a full 80 sweet, juicy acres. It may be underperforming now….but it won’t stay that way for long.

    –I am a man of simple needs. You could set me up in the Crescent Model and stick a fork in me. For the life of me I don’t why why someone doesn’t do just as you describe, with the clusters and common greenways. I find them infinitely more appealing than today’s Bento Box. I know I am not alone.

    –I am also very quick to tire of those passing foul judgement on the trends and fashions that preceded them – and those pics are screaming for a treatment. But there’s no denying the early 70s were quite a unique period. When the 60s went mainstream. I wish I could say I was there, but I wasn’t, really. I was in junior high, and junior high schoolers don’t notice such things. I do maintain it was the zenith of popular music. Pick a genre – it probably hit peak flower in the early and mid-70s.

      1. When you are riding through the desert on a horse with no name, what does it occur to you to say? “It’s hot,” perhaps, or, “I am thirsty.” That is because you are not a poet. A poet says, “It’s good to get out of the rain.” 1971-1972, baby. Absolute zenith–or is it “nadir”?

        Sears had been in decline all of my life, so many strange missteps. Remember Prodigy? For years it was the anchor store you parked by, at the mall–any mall–when you were worried about finding parking. Translated all of their signs into Spanish, and bought out Lands End. I guess that by the end, nothing they tried mattered anymore.

    1. There are hundreds of variations on The Crescent in Hollywood alone and each one ignites a tiny bonfire of envy when I roll past.

  2. My first professional tools were Craftsmen. I admired the display that took up most of a wall. After marriage, we bought Sears baby clothes and a giant 19 inch color TV. Until sometime in the 90’s their products were always on the list for consideration. I think my last purchase was about 2010. A lawnmower for the suburban home I am now moving from. The idea of driving and parking in a large lot, walking through aisles and floors of merchandise, which once excited me, now seems a waste of time I don’t have. Even in retirement.

    1. I tried to buy a TV from Sears, once. Well, first I tried to buy it from Best Buy, but there was no one around to help me with the purchase. So I went to Sears, where a salesman quickly got me squared away.

      “Squared away,” however, didn’t mean you had the TV. It meant you walked through a door into a hidden waiting room, where you stood with several other customers, waiting for someone to bring your TV out of the back.

      After 30 minutes, I gave up, went back to the salesman, got a refund, and bought the TV from Best Buy.

      Sears had been failing at the most basic things, in the most bizarre ways, for decades. It was for many years an institution–you couldn’t figure out how or why it was surviving, but it was still there: until it wasn’t.

      1. That’s a great anecdote. There’s a point in the death spiral of a retail chain when it’s just moving inventory to and fro and writing down the losses and buying more product and distributing it and writing it down, as though it were in a zombie state. Staff are “present”, but no one is really minding the store.

  3. My late mother worked for many years at the Sears distribution center/retail store in the Fenway section of Boston, another beautiful Art Deco example the company sold years ago (https://tinyurl.com/u5rqsz8). When Sears left, the Twelve Tribes religious group in Plymouth acquired wood shelving salvaged from what’s now called the Sears Landmark building and created beautiful furniture which financed their now thriving community in its early days. They have a fascinating story as well (https://twelvetribes.org).

  4. The fourth picture from the top is, I believe, the “Six Corners” store at Irving Park, Milwaukee and Cicero on the Northwest side of Chicago. Both my mom and sister worked for Sears, so we got the employee discount. Bought my first new bike from Sears.

    The third photo is the warehouse on the Westside from which catalog orders were filled.

Comments are closed.