Lee Cataluna: It's Not The End Of An Era. The Era Already Ended - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org


This week, it was reported that the last Sears department store in Hawaii will close.

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The Sears on Maui had held on at the Queen Kaahumanu Shopping Center since the mall first opened in 1972, anchoring the Haleakala side of the open-air mall while venerable Liberty House held down the Wailuku side. Liberty House has been gone for nearly 20 years. Sears has been on a slower decline.

The Maui location follows the recent demise of Sears stores on Oahu at Windward Mall (in 2019)  and Pearlridge (earlier this year) and, indeed, across the country. There is still a Sears appliance store on the mauka side of Ala Moana, and a similar scaled-down appliance and tool store in Kailua-Kona.

However, the vast department store with washers and stoves on the ground floor, women’s fashions and tuxedo rentals on the mall level, bathmats and baby strollers on the top floor has been gone from Ala Moana Shopping center since 2013, that symbol of sturdy affordability replaced by the gleaming luxury of Nordstrom, work boots replaced by kitten heels and “investment purses.”

Sears was a convenient place to get a new car battery or get your tires rotated. That part of the store smelled pleasantly of new tires. While your car was being serviced, you could walk around the mall, have lunch, kill time — so different from the air-conditioned waiting rooms in modern auto repair and tire stores where it’s bitter coffee and public Wi-Fi to pass the time.

Empty Sears Pearlridge
On the last day of business, the Sears store in Pearlridge was selling everything, even fixtures and hangers. Lee Cataluna/Civil Beat/2021

When Sears Pearlridge was in its final days this March, the sales associates were eager to get rid of everything in the store, even clothes hangers and racks. They were giving away mannequins piece by piece, like, “Here’s an arm. You never know when you might need one. Go ahead. Take it.”

It was a surreal, almost dystopian end to a mainstay of a bygone era when dad could shop for a lawnmower on the ground floor while his daughter looked at prom dresses upstairs.

There is not that kind of utility or practicality to be found in retail anymore. There is not that kind of depot for everything a working family would need.

If you’re looking for a baby crib, you go to a baby furniture store. If you want a socket set, you go to a hardware store. Walmart tries to come close to that model, but it does not have the reputation of durability and, I suppose, earnestness that Sears had built up over generations. Sears also never had a reputation for customers behaving badly.

Sears sold necessities. It was a working-class people’s store that sold long-sleeve cotton shirts in safety orange and painters’ pants meant for actual painting, not posing.

Sears sold tools, things average people could use to fix their stuff. Even that seems so outdated. Why fix something when it’s less effort and often less expense to buy brand-new? And who knows how to fix their own doorbell camera or electric car anyway?

No, the way modern life in Hawaii is set up, especially on Maui, people work hard, probably in a tourism-related job, so they can pay someone to do all their household tinkering. Fewer people know how to work with their hands, and those handy, practical people were Sears’ customers.

In its old-fashioned way, Sears was sort of the Amazon of its era, providing a wide range of home goods, personal products, toys and tools that could be purchased remotely through its catalogue and mailed to rural areas far away from large shopping districts.

The online memorials for the Maui Sears store were poignant and specific:

“Sears sold the very best appliances. My dryer lasted 17 years.”

“I got my first credit card from Sears. Took my family to get our portraits done there.”

“My mom retired from there.”

“Haven’t shopped there in probably 30 years but still sad to see it go.”

By far, though, the most frequent comment was some version of, “Wow. Didn’t realize it was still open.”

It is another symbol of the changes Hawaii has gone through in the last 50 years. Or the last 20. Or the last two.

People don’t need to buy lawnmowers because it’s impossible for a working family to afford to buy a house with a lawn. And if one can afford a house with a lawn, one can certainly afford to pay for yard service. People don’t fix their own stuff because so many common household items are cheaply made, easily replaced, or run by computer chip.

In its old-fashioned way, Sears was sort of the Amazon of its era, providing a wide range of home goods, personal products, toys and tools that could be purchased remotely through its catalogue and mailed to rural areas far away from large shopping districts. The retail stores were as spacious as a modern warehouse store, as hands-on helpful as a hardware giant, and offered the variety of Target or Walmart (except for groceries.)

It was too slow to adapt to the changes of the information age, and that is a lesson for so many traditional businesses and for those who cling to the days when Hawaii residents were more working class and self-sufficient.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.


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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org


Latest Comments (0)

Ironic that Sears and Penny's could have had a very different future had they had the Amazon foresight and converted their comprehensive catalogue to on-line shopping. The catalogue featured all the photography and information they might have needed, and their Nationwide network of pickup and delivery centers would have simplified the selling process well ahead of Amazon's slower development of those services. All part of the past, now, a less aggressive time. And who, really, could have predicted the incredible growth of on-line shopping?

wilwelsh · 2 weeks ago

    It is, its called the death of the middle class. All the stores the middle class used to shop in have been replaced. Mervyns, Pennys, JC Pennys, Structure, Sears, Macy's (About half of them) Have been replaced with Ross, Costco, Walmart, Amazon, the dollar store-all discount stores. Malls across America are shutting its doors. Its not just business that is changing toward the likes of Amazon (Sears had an online presence too). It is the demographics. If 42% of Americans make 15 dollars an hour or less, where do you think they can shop?      

Perseus · 2 weeks ago

The Sears Kenmore refrigerator that I bought in 1986 is still going strong today. My Sears Kemore Microwave which I bought in 1989 lasted until 2016. I bought another Kenmore to replace that one and it is still working 5 years later. Hopefully it lasts just as long as the previous one.I echo many of the memories people have shared here about Sears including the catalogs, departments, everything in one place, customer service and repairs. Back in the day the Sears repair guy would come out and fix your appliance. They also delivered big stuff like beds.It was sad to see Sears Ala Moana go, which further cemented Ala Moana's reputation as a high end, costly tourist trap that is now begging for customers since the COVID-19 crisis started. Thank goodness Target is there as well as Long's and the U.S. Post Office. Aloha Sears. Lots of memories bought there and incorporated into my life.

macprohawaii · 2 weeks ago

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