Sears store in Crystal Mall to close

In this November 2012 file photo, shoppers queue up outside Sears/Toys R Us/Target in Waterford for early Black Friday deals. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
In this November 2012 file photo, shoppers queue up outside Sears/Toys R Us/Target in Waterford for early Black Friday deals. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Waterford — Sears, a long-time Crystal Mall anchor, will close by year's end.

The store's corporate parent, Sears Holdings Corp., which also owns Kmart stores, filed early Monday for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. As part of a plan to facilitate a financial restructuring, the company announced it will close 142 "unprofitable" stores "near the end of the year," with liquidation sales at those stores expected to begin shortly.

The Sears store in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford also is closing.

Sears Holdings also has Sears stores in Danbury, Manchester and Meriden and Kmart stores in Vernon and Watertown.

Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said it was well known that Sears Holdings was struggling and that Monday's news did not come as a surprise.

"It's very significant," he said. "Unfortunately, we're going to see more of these kinds of closings over the next several years as internet companies like Amazon take over retail.

"Going into the holiday season, it doesn't seem right or fair," he said.

The manager of the Crystal Mall store referred a reporter to Sears' corporate headquarters outside Chicago, as did a spokeswoman for the Simon Property Group, which owns the mall.

Sheridan estimated the Crystal Mall store employs about 150 people.

"These kind of corporate decisions are made outside the area and there's not a lot we can do about it except help those who are losing their jobs," he said. "It's a big hit for Crystal Mall. There's not a great deal of adaptation that can take place. What would you do with a big store like that?"

On Monday, a sign in the Crystal Mall store read, "NOW HIRING."

The closings announced Monday are in addition to 46 stores Sears Holdings previously announced would close by November.

Before there was Amazon — or, for that matter, Home Depot or Walmart or Kmart — there was Sears.

From its beginnings as a mail-order watch business in Minneapolis 132 years ago, the company grew to become America's everything-under-one-roof store and the biggest retailer in the world.

For generations of Americans, the brick-like Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog was a fixture in just about every house — a miscellany of toys and clothes and furnishings and hardware that induced longing for this or that dream purchase. The Sears brand loomed as large over the corporate landscape as its 108-story basalt-like headquarters did over the Chicago skyline.

"It was the Amazon of its day," said Mark Cohen, a professor of retailing at Columbia University and a former Sears executive.

Analysts have their doubts it will survive.

"In our view, too much rot has set in at Sears to make it (a) viable business," Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, said in a note to investors.

Its bankruptcy was years in the making. Sears diversified too much. It kept cutting costs and let its stores become dated in the face of increasing competition from the likes of Walmart and Target. And though it expanded onto the internet, it was no match for Amazon.

"In point of fact," Cohen said, "they've been dead for a very long time."

In its bankruptcy filing, Sears Holdings, which operates both Sears and Kmart stores, listed assets of $1 billion to $10 billion and liabilities of $10 billion to $50 billion. It said it has lined up $300 million in financing from banks to keep operating and is negotiating an additional $300 million loan.

The company once had around 350,000 employees; as of Monday's filing, it was down to 68,000. At its peak, it had 4,000 stores in 2012; it will now be left with a little more than 500.

Sears was born in 1886, when Richard W. Sears began selling watches to supplement his income as a railroad station agent in North Redwood, Minn. By the next year, he had opened his first store in Chicago and had hired a watchmaker named Alvah C. Roebuck.

The company published its first mail-order catalog in 1888. Together with companies like Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, Sears helped bring American consumer culture to middle America.

"It's hard to imagine now how isolating it was to live in a small town 100 years ago, 120 years ago," said Marc Levinson, author of "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America." ''Back before the days of cars, people might have a ride of several days in a horse and buggy just to get to the nearest train railhead, nearest train station."

"What Sears did was make big-city merchandise available to people in small towns," he said.
There was a time when you could find just about anything for your house in the Sears catalog — including a house. Between 1908 and 1940, the company sold about 75,000 build-from-a-kit houses, many of which are still standing.

Sears' offerings could cover you from cradle to grave: It even sold tombstones. In between, there was everything from girdles to socket wrenches, dresses to guns, dolls to washing machines.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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