Everything Must Go
The local Kmart is closing.
It's been a long, slow death. Everyone saw it coming. Experts were called in—including the illustrious Martha Stewart. She injected her wares, monitored the vital signs, but eventually withdrew her aggressive treatment. Jaclyn Smith has provided hospice care.
I recently made a final visit to pay my respects. I knew the old girl was fading fast, but now she's truly going. The lights are on, and the air conditioner is pumping, but everything except the most basic life support has abandoned.
The store lies in open, naked decay. The blurred linoleum is more yellow than white, worn almost translucently thin in places or broken away to reveal the ridged brown subfloor. Garish yellow signs with diagonal black text staunchly advertise a final gasp of a sale, but the poison colors warn of death and danger, like striped police tape around a crime scene or warning labels on heavy equipment. And everything, everything—the shelves, the floors, the walls—is covered with sticky brown mucus, the gummy residue from decades of adhesive labels advertising low prices, big sales, and the new-and-improved. Through the years, the labels were ripped off haphazardly or pasted right over each other, leaving a palimpsest of devolving logos and diminishing numbers that you could mine like an archeological dig until you hit traces of bygone eras—prices advertised in cents instead of dollars, whole numbers instead of .99's.
But the worst things are the empty shelves.
They stretch as far as the eye can see, the exposed metal spines of the store, with nicked and chipped and scratched paint. I notice for the first time just how long they are, for there's little on them to distract me. Single items—the last of their lines—slump alone on each shelf, bereft of their twin brothers and coordinating cousins. Without their clans, they look random and cheap, incomplete—flat sheets without shams, mugs without bowls, curtain panels without mates. I can pinpoint the location of every other shopper in the store—we stragglers, we scavengers—by the echoing clangs of the bare metal as we pick up, then reject, each piece of merchandise.
Something about the death of a store is achingly sad.
Where there was once so much cheer and life, there are now only empty aisles and orphan dolls. Without a steady flow of new and shiny goods, without the crackling new chapters of the cellophane story, the old apparatus itself becomes apparent for what it is—mere plastic, paper, metal. The death of a store is a small death, but a significant one. It's the failure of something distilled and intensely American—the waning of a particular instance of optimism, confidence, and abundance. It's the embarrassment of the failure, too, the public show—the exposure of the pitiful. It’s a soft, pale crab caught after molt, a short man in green pulling levers behind a curtain, or an aging, fading beauty glimpsed without her wig or dentures.
I'm part of Kmart's problem. I abandoned her, too. First for Walmart and her attractive thrift, but then that very practicality began to bore me. Now I'm with Target, the trophy wife of household shopping that everyone wants, with her iApple-white skin and Coca-Cola-red hair.
So something about the death of this Kmart is sad, and personal. I remember other stores from my childhood in Augusta, Georgia that faded away, too. Woolworth's. Rose's. Eckerd's. I remember eating lunch once with my mother at a counter in Woolworth's, maybe a grilled cheese sandwich, and there were little canaries and fish for sale in the back of the store. I remember going to Rose's each season of the year for bathing suits or school supplies or Christmas wrapping paper, and that the best trips were those when Daddy had just gotten paid and he’d buy a new Barbie doll for each of his daughters. And I remember that I got my first eyeglasses at Eckerd's drugstore, and how the optometrist placed the pink frames on my face and then the flat gray carpet suddenly leapt up into phantom hills and slopes, and I gingerly walked around the room on my skinny, knobby legs before my eyes adjusted. I remember that my mother cried with relief or guilt or shame on the car ride home, too, when I exclaimed over the individual green leaves now visible in the trees.
My mother, too, still refers to a mythical place in Augusta called Davison's, a long-defunct, locally-owned department store that never existed in my life. "We'll need to make a trip to Davison's or somewhere," she'll say, when one of us mentions the need for a new dress to attend a graduation or wedding or funeral. Davison’s was hallowed ground to Mama as a child, because that’s where my thrifty Nana took her for rare, special purchases.
And maybe that's what makes the death of a store so sad. Not only is it the embarrassing public decline of something that was once so vital, so alive, so relevant, but it’s the loss of a place that’s often tied to important memories. It’s where you got your ears pierced, or your parents bought you a two-wheeler, or where you went shopping for Halloween costumes every year. It’s the place where you saw your teacher from school wearing shorts, or where your grandmother took you on special shopping days when we were reminded not to tell our mercurial Papa how much any item cost.
I didn't know this particular Kmart for long, and maybe I didn't treat her well, but I'll still miss her. I wonder if others will, too.
About the Author: Angela Schlein lives in Norfolk, Virginia and is an active student at The Muse Writers Center. She earned a bachelor's degree in English from Emory University and a master's degree in English from the University of Florida. This is Angela’s first publication.