Year End 2016 – The K Mart Effect

As we approach the end of 2016, I thought I’d rant about something that really bugs me.  Maybe more than just about anything.

Our story begins a long time ago.  Born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, I was a child and young adolescent during one of the best periods in American history – the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Although I know that things were not as perfect for many people, especially those of color in the South, I really didn’t see much of that in Washington.  (We didn’t have any “separate but equal” bathrooms or drinking fountains.  News stories about problems like this always seemed foreign to me because I never thought I was “better” than just about anyone, especially one whose skin color was different.  Who cared?  Not me!!)

What I did see was prosperity.  Jobs seemed to be available for just about anyone who wanted one.  Folks bought new cars every couple of years, and all of my friends had nice homes.  We rode around without seat belts in our cars, we played with toys that shot little gray plastic bullets, and ate whatever food we bought at the grocery store without thinking of where it came from or if it was “organic.”  When we got sick, we got a penicillin shot in the butt and got well in a couple of days (must have been fewer “viruses” back then!)  We took drives on the weekend … just to drive around … and took most of our vacations by car, because only “rich” folks could afford to fly.  Since my Grandmother lived in rural Nebraska at the time, almost every year we loaded up the car for a drive back during the summer (and man, did I like it when my folks could finally afford a car with “air conditioning!”)  Several times, we loaded up our bags onto a train for a two day trip to visit grandmother for Christmas.  When someone did fly into SeaTac, we’d drive up to the airport early just to watch the planes take off and land, then walk out to the gate to stand on the tarmac and greet our visitors as they got off their plane.

All in all, it was truly a wonderful life.  And, I miss all of it a lot.

One aspect of this great life really stands out to me.  We had a variety of shopping choices, most of them locally owned and operated.  There were the big stores downtown, like People’s Store – a multi story department store headquartered here in Tacoma – Sears, Penny’s and a branch of Seattle’s own Bon Marche.  Around town there were a number of smaller shops that were literally “Mom and Pop” stores.  One I remember was the Samuelson’s Men’s Store in University Place.  Located on 27th and Grandview, it primarily served men and boys, and each year it was where my Mom took me to get my new pair of jeans, underwear, and a few other items that were my new school clothes.  We also did a lot of Christmas shopping for my Dad there.  These shops employed local folks, and sold goods primarily made in the USA such as Levi’s jeans.  So they not only provided us with clothes, but there were a lot of jobs generated nationwide ranging from the sales persons, to the owners, to the folks who made things in the USA.

This landscape started changing in the mid-60’s.  The first threat was the new Tacoma Mall that opened up out near the then new freeway.  With the easier access and big, free, parking lots, the Mall took away a lot of business, especially from downtown where parking was always a bit of a problem.  But the REAL problem was the new K-Mart!!

Because, when K Mart came to town, so did much lower prices (for mostly “imported” goods) and little service.  It started us on a road that continues today: “CHEAP, CHEAPER, CHEAPEST!!”  The stores like Samuelson’s couldn’t compete.  Gone.  The department stores either closed (like People’s Store) or consolidated (The Bon became Macy’s) to try to offer lower prices.  And, throughout the land, one by one the factories that made things closed.  CHEAP, CHEAPER, CHEAPEST!!

Along the way, we found that we really needed more than one or two pairs of jeans … since they were CHEAP we needed several.  But, only if they were CHEAP.  (I also remember when airplane travel was a dress up experience … very unlike today’s CHEAP cattle cars.)

I know it’s all progress and those good times will never return.  But for folks who are younger, I’m truly sad that they missed out on mid-century America.  It was truly a wonderful life.

Happy New Year!!

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