Monday’s announcement that Sears would file for bankruptcy and close 142 stores came as little surprise to anyone who has followed the retail giant’s collapse in recent years. Still, the news inspired a wave of nostalgia for a company that sold an ideal of middle-class life to generations of Americans. A lesser-known aspect of Sears’s 125-year history, however, is how the company revolutionized rural black Southerners’ shopping patterns in the late 19th century, subverting racial hierarchies by allowing them to make purchases by mail or over the phone and avoid the blatant racism that they faced at small country stores.
How a financial wizard took over a giant of American retailing, and presided over its epic decline.
Bankruptcy wasn't inevitable. It was Wall Street's business strategy.
Every time a black southerner went to the local store they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first.The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods (often on credit because...sharecropping). The landlord often owned the store. In every way shopping reinforced hierarchy. Until #SearsThe catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!Southern storekeepers fought back. They organized catalogue bonfires in the street.These general stores often doubled as post offices. The owners would refuse to sell stamps to black people, or money orders, to use the catalogue services.In an attempt to undermine #Sears, rumors spread that Sears was black (to get white customers to stop buying from him). Sold by mail “these fellows could not afford to show their faces as retailers” Sears, in turn, published photos to “prove” he was white.These rumors didn’t affect sales but show how race and commerce connected in the countryside. And how dangerous it was to the local order, to white supremacy, to have national markets.So as we think about #Sears today, let's think about how retail is not just about buying things, but part of a larger system of power. Every act of power contains the opportunity, and the means, for resistance.You *may* have noticed that race and capitalism were not just problems in the 19th century. As I write about, African-Americans have always had a less equal access to the market, whether as consumers or as workers. For more: amazon.com/Temp-American-…
Sears is closing its final store in Chicago, the city it called home for more than a century.
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The Six Corners store, like more than 100 other Sears locations, is owned by Seritage Growth Properties, a real estate company controlled by Sears Holdings CEO Eddie Lampert. Seritage, which is publicly traded, has a market value nearly 10 times greater than Sears Holdings. ❧
Interesting to see the interaction between Sears Holdings and Seritage. The value is apparently all in the real estate.