Sunday December 10, 2017

Eulogy for Sears

Paula Hudson-Lunn bids a fond farewell to a department store that saw her through some of the most important moments of her life.

Paula Hudson-Lunn bids a fond farewell to a department store that saw her through some of the most important moments of her life. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Listen 6:05

By Paula Hudson-Lunn

I still use the same flour my mother did in the 1950's. Once, when I tried something different, the pie crust was inedible. So I went right back to Robin Hood. I guess I'm a brand loyalist.

It's a weird thing. We commit ourselves to goods and stores for all kinds of reasons. Maybe, like with my choice of flour, we internalize a parent's preference; maybe the marketing gurus get us. Whatever the reasons, once committed, we don't give up easily. Unless we're forced to.      

This fall, when the courts approved the liquidation of Sears Canada, news across the country referred to it as the "end of an era." That's exactly how I saw it.

I actually felt a sense of loss. At first I felt a bit ridiculous. I'm not one of the 15,000+ people losing their jobs; I've never worked for Sears, so I don't have a pension in jeopardy; and I don't own anything with a warranty that will no longer be honoured. I was just a customer, a long-time one, but still just a customer.

But Sears played a big part in my life.

Paula Hudson-Lunn

"This fall, when the courts approved the liquidation of Sears Canada, news across the country referred to it as the 'end of an era'. That's exactly how I saw it." (Paula Hudson-Lunn)

As a cash-strapped young mother raising four kids in subsidized housing, Sears was my go-to store for affordable…pretty much everything. Their strollers and cars seats, baby portraits and blankets, the books I read to them, the dishes we ate from, the winter boots and the annual back-to-school clothes — all of it came from that store.

So, not surprisingly, the subject of Sears' demise came up during a Sunday night call with one of my daughters. She asked if I remembered the back-to-school outfit she picked for the day she started Grade one: "It was a jean skirt, vest, and fancy top and cowboy boots. Me getting to pick that outfit for myself, the excitement of it being delivered, parading around in it before my big day, it's such a wonderful memory." I didn't recall. "Really?" she said. This daughter is 33 years old now, and the back-to-school clothing we reminisced about was bought 27 years ago. She told me she felt a piece of her childhood was disappearing along with the department store.

Me too.

Growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, I knew it as Simpsons, before partnerships and mergers turned it into the Sears Canada we know today. Back then the flagship store was in an imposing, ornate building with arches and columns and huge windows at the corner of Queen and Yonge streets.

I loved going there with my mother. I'd beg her to leave me with the ladies selling lavender sachets from a fancy cart so I could smell the flowers. If I behaved, we'd go for lunch at this phenomenal place several stories up — the Arcadian Court. I'd never been anywhere so fancy — starched tablecloths, silverware and serving trolleys. Sandwiches without crusts on multilayered plates, and fascinating fare served on abalone half shells. At the end of lunch, uniformed ladies came by with dessert carts filled with colourful pieces of cake. To this day, I hear two words —  Petit Fours — and I'm transported.

As I was at Christmas. Electric trains and Santa's workshop, winter wonderlands and toboggan runs, Dickensian scenes from the Victorian era — each window a different story.

Sears Canada

"I'm grateful for the wonder, the comfort, the affordability and the hilarity it contributed to my life, and I'm sorry to see its lights go out." (Mike Kalasnik)

As a teenager studying Art History, I spent hours outside of that downtown Toronto store, doing rubbings of its intricate exterior or drawing its columns. The only time I tried to shoplift was at Sears. It was a key chain with the letter D on it to give it to a boy I liked whose name was Doug. All the summer cottages I visited had Sears catalogues in the outhouses; all the small towns I lived in had Sears catalogue outlets. I have a picture in an old photo album that I call "Canadian Gothic." It was taken in a Sears portrait studio the year before my divorce. Me, my then-husband and our four kids, crammed into a tiny room. Smile, click. The end of a marriage captured on film.

The year I turned 50 I was thumbing through a Sears catalogue and there they were:  these monumentally shapeless dresses — moo-moos they were called. I pointed them out to a friend sitting with me: "Who would wear these?" I scoffed. "They're awful." The more I laughed, the more I lamented that one day, it might be me. Those dresses inspired me to host a women's dress-up party I called "Forget the inner child; Embrace the inner old lady." I was tired of therapy and trying to thwart the aging process. I wanted to lighten up. Women came from all over, dressed as caricatures of who they might eventually become. It gave us a chance to laugh at what lay ahead before the reality wasn't funny.

Yes, Sears Canada was just a department store. But for me Sears was more than that. Our connections to the company went deeper than what it provided us, and, like my daughter's grade one outfit or the omen captured in our family portrait, these connections have been part of the stories we've lived. My memories of growing up in the 1950s, of raising four kids in the 1980s, of embracing my aging self in the early 2000s, were enriched by the presence of the almost-dead company known as Sears Canada.

I'm grateful for the wonder, the comfort, the affordability and the hilarity it contributed to my life, and I'm sorry to see its lights go out.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.