A business is, in a way, a living entity.
It teems with life. Human beings inside it, the hustle and bustle. Bright and vibrant. It is its own ecosystem in a way, subject to natural laws of survival, adaption, and consumer behavior -- a cup of coffee shared between Charles Darwin and Adam Smith.
And like humans, businesses die.
It is depressing when they do. How many of us with nostalgia have driven past some abandoned storefront that used to be something-or-other and felt a pang of wistfulness and the sights and sounds and smells of what once was return to our imaginations? (I've read that some candle company actually created a scented candle designed to evoke memories of the old Hills department store snack bar -- and having been in Hills a lot as a kid, I remember that aroma well.)
Personally, I've developed a sort of morbid curiosity with going on YouTube and looking at videos showing empty malls. Once busy commercial hubs, these sprawling spaces are now as desolate as Chernobyl. One such video chronicles the rise and fall of the Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. It starts by showing images of the mall when it opened, colorful ads and packed parking lots set to upbeat music, and juxtaposes that with somber sounds and shots of empty mall corridors. The bittersweet name of the video? "At Least They Tried."
I had much the same feeling as I walked into our local Kmart store for the last time earlier this month. The store had been scheduled to close on December 1, as the one prolific chain of retail stores is experiencing its death rattles. With no offense to anyone with loved ones facing life's end, it felt to me like a hospice. Shelves were empty, spots of floor were barren, aisles were unpopulated. There was even that smell, the haunting one that surrounds those close to the end of their life. Maybe it was my imagination. But I smelled it.
I stopped in to get a couple of pieces for my miniature Christmas village -- you know, those little figurines and tiny churches and bakeries and other buildings? Kmart had always had a good selection of those and I'd bought a number of pieces there over the years. I figured with Kmart's doors closing, they'd be at a deep discount. On my way out, I said goodbye to the store. I realized it was the last time I'd ever be in there most likely. It felt incredibly sad.
Of course, like the majority of the customer base, I had not been in Kmart all that often in recent years -- and I suppose that's why the store faced the fate that it did. Read any number of articles on the business practices of the mighty Sears and Kmart chains, two iconic business names that linked arms only to stumble together, and you can decide for yourself the reason why Kmart has been on a store-closing spree in recent years. I won't try to determine the cause, only the effect. Somerset's store held out longer than all but one other in Kentucky, but those final two are now finally closing. Nationwide, the toll is much the same.
It's hard not to feel a kinship with the old dame, though. It's been around as long as I have. The Somerset Kmart store opened in October of 1979; I was born the next month. It was a big, big deal when it opened. These days, national retail names are common in Pulaski County, and Walmart is as much a part of the fabric of the community as something like the Fair Store was for previous generations. But Kmart coming to town ... in 1979, that meant Somerset was on the map.
"All you had was Big K and Roses," said Doris Rice, a longtime employee who recently spoke to the Commonwealth Journal about the local Kmart's closing. "We just knew it was a big corporation. We hadn't had anything like that in Somerset at that time. It was the biggest thing around."
Pictures exist of people standing in the rain to line up outside the store when it opened, eager to get in and see what all the fuss was about. It's a hard sight to imagine now, outside of Black Friday masses, and one I'm sure the Kmart powers-that-be wish had been more common. But businesses are living entities. And decay catches up with us all.
When she spoke to the Commonwealth Journal, Rice had been planning a get-together for former Kmart employees, to remember their days working at the store. She was there from the beginning and retired in 1997; she and that first group of retirees continued to meet every month for 22 years after that, to continue their bond. Again, this is something more than just people in a store; it's a living thing, a family.
Rice was on the PA system a lot -- "I wasn't shy," she said. She enjoyed doing the store announcements and something got "carried away." That was a good thing, as more self-conscious young employees preferred not to use it and leaned on Rice to spread the word about information like the well-known "blue light special." She also ran the service desk as supervisors for many years, and also the checkout counter. Rice even tried to buy the old blue light, but someone had already snatched it up. Indeed, Kmart was very meaningful to her and her existence.
"I needed a job, with three kids at home," she told the Commonwealth Journal. "I got hired and felt very fortunate."
While the brick-and-mortar business still has a place in the modern commercial world, the things have changed. As in Darwin's laws, one adapts or dies. Businesses that survive and thrive today have a strong online presence; the living entity that was always represented by a busy department store or mall now more closely resembles a cyborg, human flesh carved out around cold, efficient technology. What the future holds for the businesses whose aisles we've long walked (rather than ordering our purchases at the touch of a button), it's hard to say for sure. One day, the machines we've made may overwhelm every aspect of our current life and transform it into something we can't even picture at this time.
But for now, I will remember going into Kmart as a kid -- again, back before Walmart was such a huge presence, before Amazon delivered to one's doorstep with drones -- and shopping for Christmas gifts. Getting an Icee on the way out. Seeing lovely pictures of Kathy Ireland (swoon) hawking clothes. Washing cars with the high school band out in the parking lot (or more accurately, trying to get out of washing clothes -- I tried to use the excuse that I was allergic to water).
Kmart and I are the same age. Seeing it go, its hard not to ponder one's own mortality. The day each of us comes to when we must close our doors and say goodbye to all those who have faithfully been part of our lives.
It's always sad. Even when it's just a business.
CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a staff writer. Contact him at email@example.com.