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Sears Roebuck, Harden Street: 1970s   23 comments

Posted at 12:24 am in historic,stores

I read somewhere that as World War II drew to a close, businesses took internal bets as whether that meant "back to the Depression" or "victory boom". Montgomery Ward decided on "Depression" and adopted a cautious, defensive strategy. Sears Roebuck bet on "boom" and started a post-war expansion strategy.

I don't know this for a fact, but it seems to me that the old Sears on Harden Street must be a "boom" store. Even though Main Street was still the big shopping destination, Sears bet on suburbia and ample free parking to cater to the fact that every family in their market (the middle class) now had a car.

This store was still going strong when I was a kid, and was huge. I believe that it encompassed the entire strip mall that now stands there (with the possible exception of the Offce Depot). I guess we went there most often shopping for clothes, but since that was an activity that I purely hated, I would always wander off in the hardware and camera sections.

In fact, I got my first camera at that store. I think I still have it in a storage box from two moves ago, though I can't put my hands on it right now. It was an off-brand, cheap one, and I think I actually used my own money to get it. I remember that it used "127" film, and that I had carefully checked (I was obsessive about some things) that it would take slides that could be projected on my aunt & uncle's projector though in the event I never took a single slide on it. Come to that, I don't think I ever took a roll of color film either -- those were different days! I also got my first (well, only, come to that) enlarger there. It was a cheap plastic contraption that had a pretty crummy lens and haphazard focus, but it was a $20 way to make prints bigger than "contact" size (a 127 negative was bigger than a 35mm one but not as big as a 120 one, so contact prints were really too small -- now 616 film made nice contact prints!).

Of course for kids, the biggest thing Sears had going for it was The Wishbook. This was their Christmas toy catalog, which we would be sure to leave lying about the house opened to strategic pages all during the holiday season. The selection and prices were also good for several months into the new year, which led us to possibly the stupidest thing we ever bought.

We had some sort of club, which I believe we called the YPS club (S-P-Y backwards..) dedicated to solving the (nonexistent) mysteries of our neighborhood, and for some reason, even though the club only lasted a few weeks, never had any meetings or even any missions, we decided we must have a typewriter to take the club's (nonexistent) meeting minutes. My parents had a typewriter, but they (wisely) considered it too delicate for our hands so we searched The Wishbook minutely and found a toy typewriter which would actually type for a surprisingly good price.

Our parents looked at the picture and description and tried to talk us out of it and to explain how the machine actually worked, but we were fixated and would have none of it. In the end they threw up their hands in a "ok, but let this be a lesson for you" manner and ordered it. I was so excited when it came in, and we went down to Sears to pick it up. The excitement lasted about half the way home until I got the thing unboxed and figured out how it worked. The "keyboard" which had looked so impressive in the picture (though not to adult eyes) was actually one piece of metal with pictures of seperate keys painted on it. So to "type" you dialed a Dymo-Embosser-type head to the right letter and mashed the "keyboard" which would imprint a capital letter on your paper. I suppose you could get 1-WPM on it if you were good..

Another thing I remember in particular about that store is that they had an automatic foot-sizing machine in the shoe department. No, this was too late for the infamous X-Ray foot sizers, but it was till pretty neat. You took off your shoe, put your foot in a rectangular box, and the walls would close in on it like a James Bond death-trap until they hit your foot on all sides. I used to stick my foot in it even when I had no intention of getting shoes.

Sears missed the first wave of suburban shopping malls in Columbia (ie: Dutch Square), but decided that they were the future and became (and remained) an anchor store in the new "Columbia Mall" being built in Dentsville. When that store was ready to occupy, they closed down the Harden Street location, and for many years that new mall store was the only Sears in town. I think the old store was vacant several years then was redeveloped into the current strip (with several face-lifts and a total rebuild of Food Lion after a fire). I'm not sure if any of the original Sears building is still present -- I rather doubt it.

Sears had a good post-war. Starting more or less at parity with Montgomery Ward, it saw MW out the door as its bets paid off and theirs didn't. By that time however, it was clear that Sears had missed the next bet and had no idea how to cope with Wal-Mart or even Target. It will be interesting to see how they come out of the current recession, or if perhaps the "new" store will have to be redeveloped too.

UPDATE 21 June 2011: Added a picture (at top) of the old Sears building from a vintage Chamber of Commerce promotional book.

Written by ted on January 14th, 2009

23 Responses to 'Sears Roebuck, Harden Street: 1970s'

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  1. The old Sears was redeveloped rather quickly. It was a strip mall when I went to USC in the late 70s -early 80s. Also the Sears was expanded in the late 60s-early 70s where the Food Lion now sits. As I mentioned in a previous post, there was a Sears auto center near where Hardees now sit.

    Tom

    14 Jan 09 at 6:49 am

  2. I remember the Sears Surplus store that was in Richardson Plaza, where the Goodwill is currently locaed. Talk about bottom of the barrel. It was apparently all the broken stuff that was returned by customers that was too broken to sell in the store, but not broken to dispose of. Come to think of it, mostly like Goodwill. Remember Otasco in the same shopping center, where the Tool place is? I bought many Atari 2600 games there!!

    Jonathan

    14 Jan 09 at 11:44 am

  3. Richardson Plaza is there where Character's was back in the mid 90s?

    Mr Bill

    14 Jan 09 at 11:46 am

  4. Yes, you are correct. Not sure if that was in Sears Surplus/Goodwill or not. I guess it could have been at Harbor Freight. Do you remember the location in the strip?

    Jonathan

    14 Jan 09 at 12:00 pm

  5. Characters - I forgot all about that place. It was not on my side of town so I hardly ever went, but I saw Foghat there one night! Great!

    Dennis

    14 Jan 09 at 12:21 pm

  6. This Sears was a big part of my childhood world. (And the Harden Street building will always be Sears in my mind.) Way before there were any Super Walmarts, this store was huge. Seemed to take forever to walk from one end to the other. The Food Lion loading dock is unchanged from Sears days - it was where you picked up your large items ordered through the catalog. The extreme other end of the store was the Garden Dept. (Peaches/Office Depot) which was turned into Toyland at Christmas time. Sat on Santa's lap there many times. They had everything from the Wishbook all set up and ready to play with. I'd drive the slot cars for hours it seemed like.

    My grandmother bought me my first watch there, back when watches were expensive and fragile, and you had to be responsible enough to have one.

    This store had a gigantic stuffed Winnie the Pooh in the center. It must have been 7 feet tall.

    I clearly remember the two water fountains -- one marked WHITE and the other marked COLORED. I guess I'm gettin' sort of old, aren't I?

    Dennis

    14 Jan 09 at 12:40 pm

  7. They had that great candy and nuts counter where the lady would scoop up what ever kind you wanted a pour it into a bag for you.

    Terry Edwards

    15 Jan 09 at 10:53 pm

  8. Yeah, I remember that, though we almost never got to get any. The Columbia Mall store started out with a nut counter just outside the entrance to the Auto Center. I'm not sure when they gave that up.

    ted

    15 Jan 09 at 11:53 pm

  9. Okay Dennis, I agree with this one! I remember going to Sears with the parents :)

    Debbie

    11 Feb 09 at 7:34 pm

  10. I think this store carried all the official Boy Scouts of America gear. Clothing, camping supplies, guide books. This would have been the 1967-70 era.

    Terry Edwards

    7 Mar 09 at 1:04 am

  11. I seem to remember having to go to JC Penny downtown for that stuff.

    ted

    7 Mar 09 at 1:32 pm

  12. The downtown Belk's basement was Boy Scout HQ for me. You went down those strangely low stairs in the center of the store and went in a straight line to the Scout Counter, which had stuff for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

    Nowadays there are a few basics at Moe Levy's, and the rest is found only at the official Boy Scout store out on Betsy Drive (a little past Platinum Plus, but for some reason they won't come out and just tell people that).

    Dennis

    7 Mar 09 at 6:38 pm

  13. The old Belk family was a big supporter of Scouting and used to sell Scouting stuff at all their stores.

    The Pennys downtown used to have a large Scout selection, as the manager was a big scouting supporter. JC Penny still sells BSA items through its catalouge.

    JB Whites used to sell Scouting items at Dutch Square. So did Comptons in West Columbia.

    Part of the problem with selling BSA merchandise is that the price is regulated and there is little profit margin. That is the big reason why so many stores have dropped it.

    Tom

    7 Mar 09 at 7:34 pm

  14. Thanks Ted, just curious. I really enjoy your site, if “enjoy” is the right word. I've lived in Columbia since 1973 so I remember many of the places that you've written about. I can't exactly say I enjoy reading of their demise, but that's progress I guess. Maybe some other enterprising “Web-ster” will come up with a “Columbia Openings” site.

    dt

    8 Mar 09 at 3:49 pm

  15. No, with very few exceptions, I don't like to see anything fail. But if it does, I want to remember it.

    ColumbiaOpenings? -- go for it!

    ted

    8 Mar 09 at 10:52 pm

  16. The Office Depot, wasn't that where Peaches was? And how did your parents react when you bought that camera without their permission? Also, regarding that typewriter to praphrase Hank Hill "You got nothing but a head full of cocunuts!"

    James Greek

    2 Jul 09 at 2:30 pm

  17. I'm sure I would have had permission -- I didn't drive myself there after all..

    Yes Peaches was there.

    ted

    2 Jul 09 at 3:44 pm

  18. Peaches Records and Tapes was in the part of the old Sears building that was the garden/toy section. Peaches stayed there in that building until 1994 or 1995 when it was closed for good, and it stayed empty til they knocked/tore down part of it to where it looks like it does now. Unless you used to go to Peaches, it looks nothing like it used too. I also miss School Kids Records also in 5 points.

    Del

    3 Jul 09 at 8:09 am

  19. I dont remember Sears ever expanding..but I do know and remember the area where Food Lion is was originally Colonial Grocery Store.. Sears Automotive building was where Hardees sits now or just about the same area..but I think it was closer back up to Sears. Then there was the little "key house" that sat just about right outside the door to the garden area where you could have keys made for your car or house or whatever in a variety of colors. Sears had a really good selection of Hot Wheels back in the 60's and very early 70's too.

    Del

    3 Jul 09 at 8:14 am

  20. To me..the little building just to the right of Food Town/Lion looks just it always did when it was the Colonial Grocery Store.. it was a teeny-tiney store, but back then you didnt need these HUGE grocery stores to shop in. They all carried just about everything you needed.

    Del

    3 Jul 09 at 8:26 am

  21. Does anybody remember that there was a house set right in the middle of the parking lot? Apparently this guy would not sell his property, and the parking lot was built around him. I remember seeing him sitting on the porch.

    Michael

    23 Feb 10 at 8:32 am

  22. I actually work in the upstairs portion of this building (Right above where Cycle Center now operates).

    You are correct that the entire building was renovated. It no longer looks like a Sears inside. However, the renovation must have taken place in the 70s. It is quite dated.

    Josh

    4 Aug 10 at 7:37 am

  23. Yea the old Sears, When I was between 5 and 10 years old that was the place to go. And the catalog at Christmas, I remember the candy counter, my Dad bought a Polaroid Land camera from there and I still have the picture the sales clerk took of my Dad in the store when he was demonstrating the camera, must have been in the late 60s. I remember the Winnie The Pooh in the clothes dept, and the Toy dept at christmas, man I could spend all day in there. They had a gas station out front. And Sears even sold John Boats. Sears is still around but what happened to Roebuck?

    Rick

    16 Jan 11 at 3:38 pm

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