Joplin store reflected changing shopping patterns in America

The Sears store at Northpark Mall is among the stores the company will shut down in its latest round of closures.Globe | Laurie Sisk

Last week’s announcement that the Sears store in Joplin will close marks the end of an era for the city.

Joplin has had a Sears store for more than 90 years.

It was part of Main Street when Main Street was the center of Joplin’s shopping and social universe. It drove the creation of Joplin’s first big shopping center, as those groupings of stores were changing the suburban landscape, and for the past 23 years, it has anchored one end of Northpark Mall.

It is closing amid new shopping dynamics as consumers move online.

Through the decades, hundreds if not thousands of people worked at one of the retailer’s five locations in Joplin; unknown thousands shopped there.

For many families, a visit to Sears was a tradition — a back-to-school tradition, a Black Friday and Christmas tradition, a place where family portraits were traditionally taken, and much more.

Joplin residents on Friday were invited on Facebook to recall those traditions and their history with the store.

Steven C. Cates wrote: “Our first color TV was bought at Sears — school clothing each August was purchased at Sears — I bought my mother a beautiful wood rocker at Sears for Christmas one year — bought my carpenter dad tools there each year for Christmas.”

For several who responded, one of the strongest memories was the aroma of roasted nuts when they walked into the store in the center near Seventh Street and Illinois Avenue.

“Oh my! The distinct smell when you went in the door,” Marcy McVey wrote of Sears. “The hot roasted nuts and the candy counter. We were not rich, but every once in a while, Dad would buy a few cashew nuts and a tiny bit of chocolate. We all got to have a nut, and sister and I shared the chocolate. Sweet memories of an innocent time of my childhood.”

Denise Patterson wrote, “When I was a young child, I loved the candy counter just as you walk in the main entrance.”

The first Joplin Sears store opened in 1928 at 506 Joplin Ave., offering “free parking” and tires for $8.15 that were guaranteed for 12,000 miles. The crowd at the grand opening was so large that it prompted the retailer to run an ad thanking Joplin for the welcome. Through the Great Depression, Sears maintained two locations, one at 622 Main St., and a farm store at 615 Joplin Ave. At one time, about 40 people worked at the two stores, the Globe reported. Sears even fielded a basketball team that was a powerhouse in the local YMCA League.

The store moved in 1956 to what was officially Eastmorland Plaza but was more often called Sears Plaza, near Seventh and Illinois. The retailer said it was one of its largest stores in the nation outside of a major metropolitan area and promoted it as a “a progressive answer to modern shopping.”

Jean Griffith noted that the store served a region, adding: “As a child, Sears was a place where you first saw a toy in the Sears Christmas catalog, then could walk into the store on Eastmorland Plaza and see it in real time. Talk about exciting! When my father was alive, he and Mom purchased a lot of our Christmas presents from Sears in Joplin. So you could say Sears was sort of like our family Santa Claus. Sorrow fills my heart. Another part of an innocent time in my life gone forever never to return.”

By the time it moved, Sears had more than 100 employees and grew into something of a gathering place; in 1965, it was where a knitting school opened for more than 100 women who had registered for the first class.

Janet Babcock Banes remembers shopping for outfits at the store. “We would go with Mom to the Eastmorland Sears, and she would order our clothes from the catalog in the catalog department.”

“I remember going to the Sears Plaza location regularly with my mom. We would go to the catalog department in the back, and I would ride the horse and pull all the knobs on the cigarette machines while she was in line,” wrote Kim Brownlow Cowdin.

Christy Martin DeGraff wrote, “I loved going to Sears Plaza to visit Santa. Also remember those back-to-school clothes shopping days. Toughskins with the extra knee pads for my brother. Him trying on clothes and waiting for him to come out so we could see.”

Patterson also worked at the store at the Eastmorland location, including a year it flooded.

“We had to put the merchandise in the parking lot to sell. I think they moved to the mall shortly afterward,” she said.

Sears moved to the mall in 1996, part of a $4 billion campaign by the company to renovate and upgrade more than 500 stores nationwide. At the time, the retailer said about 250 people worked at the Joplin store. St Louis Cardinals great Lou Brock and actor Nathan Fillion were among the celebrities Sears brought to town for the grand opening.

Vivian Williams wrote that one of her favorite memories came around every June.

“My dad’s birthday was around Father’s Day, so he would always get tools or a mower,” she said. “I liked going to Sears and sitting on all the riding mowers with dad to ‘try them out.’ ... That huge Sears catalog was also my favorite at Christmas, and when they were old ... Mom used them to boost us little ones up at the kitchen table with.”

Sue Doennig also had a fond family memory of a Joplin store: “My dad worked at Sears at the Eastmorland Plaza. First, he was in the furniture department located in the southwest corner of the building. Later, he became an Allstate Insurance agent and shared his ‘office’ in the northeast corner of the store near the automotive department. I loved that store; it brings back lost of memories.”

The Joplin Sears store survived longer than most, escaping one round after another of cuts as the company fell on hard times. Until Thursday, when it was one of 96 closings announced nationwide. The retailer has not announced the final day for the store, although a statement from the parent company on Thursday said going-out-of-business sales begin Dec. 2.

The company also did not disclose the number of jobs at the mall store or at the nearby free-standing auto service center.

When it closes, the retailer that once had thousands of outlets will have 182 Sears and Kmart stores left.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor at the Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

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