There's no other way to put it-the once-mighty empire that was Sears-Roebuck has endured a tremendously rough existence for a number of years, with bankruptcy filings and the closure of numerous Sears & subsidiary K-Mart branches taking place en masse as retail continues to buckle under the runaway dominance of Amazon and the like. I personally witnessed a beloved local Sears at the nearby Brookfield Square shopping mall close last year, which has since fallen to the bulldozer in order to make way for a movie theater, restaurant(s), some sort of hotel and an arena wherein visitors can partake in something called Whirlyball. I still haven't the slightest clue what that is.
The Brookfield Square Sears stood at the south end of the suburban mall, adjacent to a detached Sears Auto Center, and overall could be described as a decently-sized location with two stories packed full of the usual department store ingredients-entry from the southernmost parking lot entrance immediately found you within Sears' trademark tool department, from where a short walk took visitors amongst appliances and the area where a World Of Nintendo section once sat. The remainder of the first floor was home to apparel, which spilled over onto floor number two in addition to luggage, furniture and the like. As a child, I never went to Sears unaccompanied, and as I got older going to Sears of my own accord seemed, in all honesty, somewhat silly-I could always find what I was looking for at any number of competing, less-outdated stores such as Boston Store or JCPenney, both of which existed within the same mall and were mere steps away from Sears' front door. There eventually came a time where I held several jobs in an office park contiguous to Brookfield Square, but by this point a trip to Sears was never anything more than an effort to find an out-of-the-way bathroom or to marvel at the decaying store with each & every visit. The announcement Sears would be severely downsizing their retail arsenal was, admittedly, still sad, even if the giant had long since seen better days, though I'll admit to making out like a bandit during the liquidation sales. Who doesn't need a bike headlamp that's barely able to illuminate the road before you?
However, the closure of this particular Sears immediately caused me to take pause and remember an extension of the store, a smaller side business dwarfed by its nearby big brother and featuring a single, solitary business model: the Sears Key Shop.
Sears Key Shops were once abundant, always located adjacent to the main store in the middle of its parking lot. The total size was never any bigger than, say, the waiting room of a doctor's office and possessed the wood grain feel of an scaled-down '80s-era auto body shop-walking inside found oneself at the counter, behind which was situated the sole employee at the moment, a wall of blank keys and a small room in back where it's presumed countless additional blanks lived out their days in storage. Maybe there was a small fridge to be found on the premises, perhaps a bathroom, who really knows for sure. I always envisioned working there to be nothing short of fantastic-I doubt, even at the height of the key making zeitgeist, the Sears Key Shop ever became very busy, leaving whomever was in charge full reign of the building to do whatever they wanted. I assumed this involved a variety of snacks, a small television and a Turbografx-16, all tucked in as a blizzard raged outside. My imagination was fairly specific back then.
There's not much more to say about the Sears Key Shop-I haven't seen one in decades, and it's presumed that most if not all were removed long before Sears' financial difficulties began. Keys can be made at any hardware store, but the idea of a dedicated key shop is one that seems to harken back to a bygone era, where a keymaker was a job people did with pride and a store devoted to such sat comfortably alongside newsstands, soda fountains or an ancient five-and-dime. Though the shop, and the parent business that oversaw it, may be heading into the collective cultural rearview mirror very shortly, I know I'll never lose sight of seeing the Sears Key Shop as I drive past the now-former Sears parking lot, a reminder of what it felt like to tag along with my parents as they shopped for lawn tools and every so often stopped to make a copy of a key. Few businesses feel as cozy as the Sears Key Shop once did, and that's a good thing-this article may resonate with very few, but the memory of this place will always have the key to my heart.