SIOUX CITY -- The story of Sears in Sioux City was, for decades, a story of expansion: new stores, attractive merchandise, enthusiastic customers and retail success.
The venerable retailer's fortunes soured in recent years, a victim of corporate missteps and the growth of discount retailers and online shopping. In seven days, Sears will officially end 90 years of business in Sioux City.
Americans were first introduced to Sears Roebuck & Co. in the 1880s when the company, which began its business with watches, published its first mail-order catalog. The catalog brought big-city household goods to rural Americans, often at prices lower than local merchants offered.
The retailer's first Sioux City store opened at 513 Douglas St. in August 1928, only three years after the first Sears store opened in Chicago.
The store proved popular, and Sears moved to a larger Sioux City store at 308-310 Pierce St. in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression.
Sears officials celebrated a major addition and remodeling of the Pierce Street store in September 1949, which had been delayed by World War II. The new store boasted 38,000 square feet, more than double the previous store's 15,600 square feet. It offered a recreation room for employees and "ample rest room facilities for customers." The store took up half a block.
In a Journal article celebrating the new store in 1949, a Sears executive said of its generous profit-sharing program: "No one who ever worked for us 25 years has even been on a breadline."
The more than 240 employees were given a rigorous, two-month training program "stressing the responsibility which we have with the new store and the increased number of people we have to shop," store manager Oscar F. Broyer told the Journal. More than 2,000 people toured the store during its grand opening.
In a November, 1949 Journal photo titled "Road to Bargains Turns into Hazard," a crowd of customers outside the store was so large that the sidewalk sagged, and engineers ordered the Pierce Street entrance barricaded.
Five years later, Sears opened a separate "Farm Store" at Pierce Street and Gordon Drive. Sears established an Allstate Insurance office (Allstate began as a division of Sears) in Sioux City in 1947.
For decades, Sears and other department stores like Younkers and J.C. Penney thrived in downtown Sioux City, the city's undisputed retail hub. That all changed by the late 1970s with the development of the city's first suburban mall carved out of the hills of the Morningside neighborhood.
In 1980, the downtown Sears store closed as the retailer became one of the first anchors at the new Southern Hills Mall. The new Sears boasted 48 merchandise divisions, from apparel and sporting goods to toys and electronics to automotive and appliances.
Greg Miller of Sioux City was one of many local Sears customers, a fan of the store for "many years," beginning at the downtown store and later at the mall. Miller said he's had a pretty good run of luck with his Kenmore appliances.
"I bought a refrigerator there back in 1978, it lasted 26 years, then it konked out in '04, I bought another Sears refrigerator at the mall, and that's now going on 15 years old," Miller, 69, said. "Two refrigerators in 40-plus years, I think that's pretty good."
Miller also purchased a dishwasher in 1989 that's still going strong, as is his 1979 clothes dryer. A Kenmore washing machine he bought at the same time as the dryer has since died, but it lasted a remarkable 30 years -- a long life for a washing machine. His Sears microwave lasted from 1987 until 2006, at which time he replaced it with another microwave from Sears.
"I'm very sad, very sad, it's been a part of my life all my life, the Sears store, and I can't believe it won't be there anymore," he said.
The chain fell on hard times beginning in the 1990s, amid fierce competition from big-box stores like Wal-Mart. When it was reported in 1991 that Sears was going to eliminate 21,000 jobs nationwide, Jack Berg, then the manager of Sears at the Southern Hills Mall, said none of the 200 employees at the time would be imminently endangered.
"This will be happening over a drawn-out time so it is too early to judge everything," Berg told the Journal at the time.
Hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert took over the struggling retailer in 2005 and created Sears Holdings Corp., which also ran K-Mart stores. Losses mounted over the next decade and a half, and since 2010 Sears had not posted a profit.
Sears Holdings shuttered Sioux City's K-Mart location on Gordon Drive two years ago amid a round of store closures. K-Mart and its predecessor, S.S. Kresge, had operated in Sioux City since 1917.
Sioux City's Sears survived numerous rounds of nationwide store cuts, including the first closures after Sears announced its bankruptcy in October.
But in late December, the Southern Hills Mall Sears -- the last one in Iowa -- was included on a list of 80 that would close. Roughly 43 people are expected to lose their jobs.
The store is expected to shut its doors by March 10, two weeks earlier than the original expected closure date. The store's floor area is now roughly three-fourths empty, with apparel making up the bulk of the remaining stock. Store furniture and fixtures, all of which are available for purchase, have sold off rapidly.
Brad Harper, the current store manager and a Sears veteran of 31 years, said in a recent interview that the sooner-than-expected closure was partly a result of Sears' bankruptcy proceedings and partly a result of merchandise selling fast. Some of the other 80 closing stores will shut down even earlier.
"We're actually part of that bankruptcy court, paying back the creditors," Harper said. The store continued to receive merchandise shipments throughout the liquidation, much of it coming from other closed stores.
In January, Lampert emerged from the bankruptcy owning Sears and K-Mart, and plans on keeping roughly 400 stores open. At its peak, there were roughly 4,000 stores in the Sears Holdings family.
Sears is folding virtually all of its Midwestern locations, including at the Mall of America. Going forward, the nearest location to Sioux City will be in Independence, Missouri.
Harper said he wasn't entirely sure why the Midwest stores are closing while a few hundred locations in the south and the east and west coasts were spared.
Sears Holdings sold the store to Washington Prime Group, the owner of the mall, roughly a year ago amid a spree of selling real estate to cover the company's immense losses. With that, Sioux City's Sears went from owning the store to paying rent on it, denting profits. Still, Harper maintains the store didn't lose money.
"We always were performing well," he said.
It remains unclear what the mall will do with the 120,000-square-foot space left behind when Sears is gone.
"Rumors, rumors, you hear them all, and I've heard all kinds of stuff," Harper said. He suggested the mall will have an easier time finding a permanent occupant for Sears than the two-floor former Younkers space, which is currently occupied by a number of inflatable bouncy houses.
"I think, the malls themselves, they're going to have to recreate themselves, somehow," he added.
Washington Prime Group was tight-lipped on what it would do with the vacant store. James Clakeley, the marketing director at the mall, released a statement in early January that said the company is in "active planning and negotiations to transform both the Sears and Younkers spaces."
Clakeley said last week he had no new information, though he said the mall is planning to "re-position the space" and is in talks with potential new tenants.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the closure is how few of the employees abandoned the store despite the impending job loss.
"I've known a lot (of other store managers) that have went through liquidation, and usually the team disperses, the team -- they leave," Harper said. "And so it causes quite the havoc, and you have a lot of temp help in there doing the stuff. We're fortunate, our team is very, very strong."
Harper did not yet know whether employees would get a severance; he expected to learn more later in the week.
During Lampert's tenure, Sears and K-Mart were known for the Shop Your Way loyalty program, upon which Lampert leaned heavily. The program rewarded loyal Sears customers with "points," which could be redeemed in-store or online for merchandise.
Sears Holdings hoped, in part, that Shop Your Way -- with its direct email and text message offers -- would free the company from spending on advertising. Which is why Sears advertising has become such a rarity.
Harper expressed mixed feelings for Shop Your Way; whatever good it did, there's no getting around the fact the store couldn't even publicize its Black Friday sales for the last few years.
"It was good to maintain the customer base that you had, and you were always trying to add to it, but after a while you saturate the community," he said. "And it worked to a degree, but our customer base... the older base forgot we were here. Because there's no ads in the paper anymore."
Editor's note: Journal staff writer Mason Dockter is a part-time clerk at Sears.