The Sears store at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue was the biggest store I knew as a kid growing up in South Minneapolis. Its illuminated sign at the top of the 13-story tower was visible for miles. They don’t light the sign anymore and today the art deco structure sits vacant, waiting for developers to transform it into the buzzing center of commerce that it was in the 1960s. This past summer, a health maintenance organization said it would set up shop on the site, and a housing developer said he plans to build 300 condos and apartments there. That’s great, but whatever the site becomes it will never be the magical place it was for me when I was a kid.
I think my mother did all her shopping at that Sears store. When I was growing up, our family only had one car, which Dad needed much of the time, so Mom took the bus. When Mom would buy me clothes, we’d walk two blocks toward Pearl Park on 54th Street and catch a No. 5 bus heading north on Chicago Avenue. At the rapid rate I was growing, Mom had to take this oldest boy shopping at least twice a year. By the time I was 10 or 11, the procedure had developed into a loveable ritual.
The 24-block ride on the bus was like a commute into another world. My familiar surroundings extended as far as 52nd Street. Once we got north of Minnehaha Creek, I was lost. Four blocks from home was about as far as I ever strayed on my bike. The ride toward the center of the city took us past houses, stores and buildings that seemed mysterious to me. Who lived there? What went on in some of those buildings? Did anyone buy things in these stores? Of course, there was nothing mysterious about those places at all, only did it seem that way to a kid living in a very small world.
Several commercial buildings made up the southeast corner at the intersection of 53rd and Chicago – a drycleaner and a take-out restaurant that featured chicken. The whole corner burned to the ground when I was in the third grade. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, and you could see the smoke through my classroom window at Resurrection Grade School. After school, I ran to the corner with my brother. Chicago Avenue was blocked off to make room for the fire trucks and other emergency equipment. A maze of hoses, wires and tools covered the street and sidewalk. Barricades prevented us from getting too close, but we could see flames shooting out from the roof of the building. I had never seen a real fire before and it scared the be-gee bees out of me. I didn’t stay long, but it was long enough. I later found out Dad was at the scene and caught much of the action with his super-8 movie camera. To this day, the fire is archived along with Bengtson family events in Dad’s collection of home movies.
Every time we passed that corner, I remembered the fire. The businesses never re-emerged; they were replaced by a three-story apartment building. Sometimes I looked the other way as the bus drove by.
It was a half-a-block’s walk to the front entrance of Sears from the corner where the bus dropped us off. The entryway seemed remarkably understated for such an otherwise impressive building. When this store opened in 1928, it was the largest retail building in Minnesota and even today it is second only to the Mall of America. The parking lot in front of Sears seemed huge to me, and Mom always said she was glad she didn’t have to drive because it would be so easy to lose a car in that lot. Like the Sears catalogue – my first exposure to retail commerce – the store had everything. Tools, furniture, appliances and clothing were organized by floors. We took the escalator to the floor where they sold boys' clothing.
Mom would buy me camping shorts at Sears. These were knee-length shorts featuring numerous pockets that snapped and zipped. They also featured a clip that could be used for securing a flashlight. I had several pairs of these shorts during my childhood, in colors that included tan, navy blue and green. I never considered myself fat, but my official pant size fell into a category known as "husky.’’
Mother never bought a pair of shorts for me without having me try them on first. I would go into the changing room by myself and spend 10 to 15 minutes securing the lock on the door, hanging up our prospective purchase on a hook, removing my shoes, unbuckling my belt, unzipping my fly, stepping out of each pant leg without falling over, removing the new shorts from their hanger, stepping into each leg hole and snapping and zipping them up. About half the time, the first pair we’d select would actually fit. Either way, I’d emerge from the changing room where my patient mother was chatting with a sales lady. Mom would have me step in front of a three-way mirror. Mom and the sales lady would assess the fit, asking me to turn around. Sometimes they asked me to bend over. Worst of all was when the sales lady would put the open palm of her right hand into the back of my pants to demonstrate the beauty of the fit. "There’s plenty of room back here,’’ she would say. That generally convinced my Mom and the sale was secured. To this day I don’t really like shopping for clothes and I am sure that sales lady at Sears has something to do with it.
The bus ride to return home was more one-on-one time with Mom, which I liked. On those rides, I asked her a lot of questions, like why they don’t make dresses out of diamonds, why the buses were red, what was on the top floors of the Sears building, why it costs more to take the bus at some times during the day than others, why the sky was blue and would I ever be getting another brother or sister? Mom was very patient. One time, another passenger on the bus heard all my questions and joined in our conversation. He said I seemed like a very smart boy and asked if I was in high school! As a fifth-grader I went home feeling king of the world.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
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