A Kmart Story – when all other musings fail, write about a dying department store

I’m about to get off-the-chain sappy over a store famous for its blue light specials and kids’ shoes that fell apart after one venture through the mud — K-mart. Now, I’m not going to beg you to stay with me through this because at this time in the 21st century — the age of nosediving retail, overrated human interaction, inconvenient hard copies, and sacrificial privacy — you may be thinking why should anyone care about an obsolete department store that had a long, prosperous life? Time to sprinkle its ashes in the sea of Baby Boomer/Gen X nostalgia. But if you hear me out, you may look at classic retail Meccas from a different angle.

Recently, New Jersey news sources announced the closing of several more Sears and Kmart stores. Both retail outlets have been on the edge of collapse for years, falling into the depths of obscurity with other classics such as Toys R Us, Blockbuster Video, Caldor, and Crazy Eddies. The latest Kmart slated to close in April is in West Long Branch, seconds away from Eatontown, where I grew up.

Maybe it’s another bipolar-ish, midlife crisis thing, but I find myself to be remarkably depressed over this. The last Kmart I walked into was in West Orange in 2018. I think I needed a feminine product a-sap, and it was the cheapest place closest to my job at the time. Regardless, I can’t help but feel, yet again, a significant factor that contributed to my upbringing is being taken from me.

Trips to Kmart with my parents were some of the earliest bonding times I can remember at this point. Here is what I have. This is what the 2020’s are not going to take away from me.

I have the shopping trips when I would hide underneath the round clothing racks and annoy the hell out of my mother.

I have the kiddie pool I picked up with my Dad, how it barely fit in the back seat of his red Buick, how I sat underneath its blue plastic on the way home like it was a canopy keeping the sun from heating the faux white leather seats.

I have the school clothes that were put on layaway, the agony of waiting to wear them, the anguish over being made fun of because they came from K-mart.

Mom purchased random water guns and action figures for my brother and I just because we were significantly better behaved than most of the other kids in the store.

But I also have the time when I wandered too far away from my mother, cried for a cashier to call for her over the intercom, only to see her blonde, blue-eyed, porcelain face smiling at me seconds later. No matter what, she knew how to find and save us.

Kmart was a time for friends too. I’d go shopping with my friends and their mothers once in a while, and I’d stare in awe at their different shopping habits. For a brief amount of time, Kmart wasn’t synonymous with particular classes of people. Everyone shopped there. But much like the Walmarts of today, Kmart shoppers often made it clear where they stood in life by what they bought, how they shopped for it, and why they thought they needed it.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman — “Kmart sucks.”

I have the kick-ass snack bar! Yes, Kmarts had snack bars at one point. I’m not 100% sure the snack bar was that great, but to this day, there are few things that give me more joy than eating bad food wrapped in foil or plastic. Plus, I relished every moment of dining out with my mother — no matter if it was day-old, K-mart hot dogs or gloriously glutoness diner food, Jersey represent!

I miss shopping with my grandmother and great-grandmother for dog food, paper goods, and pre-teen board games like “Girl Talk”. I miss when my grandmother conversed with cashiers like they were human beings. She noticed and embraced every layer of people that way.

I have the fact that my parents met on a blind “date” at the same Kmart in Dover. Actually, my grandmother and my dad worked together at one point, and grandma thought my dad would be interested in my mom. So she planned to take my mom shopping. They were to meet “by chance” at the entrance of the store, and my dad (being absolutely no different than most guys on this planet) did a drive-by to see if mom was worth getting out of the car. Well, you’re reading this, so you know how that went. He stole a couple sodas from the unattended snack bar, they sat at a booth, and the rest is history. That Kmart closed in the early 2000’s, and the building was torn down about a year ago. There’s a photo of the rose my dad tied to the fence surrounding the rubble.

Overall, stores, restaurants, parks, and neighborhoods shape who we are in a lot of ways. When we have to see them fall apart, another piece of a simpler time goes down with the steel and concrete. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to get back one more Kmart day with the family. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to get back a lot of things. For now, I will thank God that my non-existent short term memory will keep my long-term memory shining and spinning like those blue lights.