Most Sundays after brunch at my favorite diner with my roommate Chris, I cross the parking lot from The Ham Place to Kmart to pick up some staple items (Tide, Pantine shampoo, Picnic Crunch cat treats,Dove dark chocolate, cotton balls, potting soil, etc.) and often some items of a more frivolous nature (Oh look! Detroit Tigers aviator sunglasses! Must have!).
This past Sunday was no different except that instead of shopping , my roommate and I were saying goodbye to a place that had been part of our lives for some 50 years. The Kmart at 13 Mile and Schoenherr — less than a mile from my house – is closed as of January 12.
Over the past few years, every time a story appeared announcing more Kmart closings I heaved a sigh of relief when” my Kmart” was not on the list. When a story broke toward the end of summer that more Michigan Kmart stores would be closing I was once again relieved to see the neighborhood Kmart was not on that list. But less than a month later a friend told me that someone she knew who worked in the pharmacy department at my store had been told the store was going to close in January 2015. Employees were advised to start looking for other jobs.
I just did not want to believe it. I had gone to that Kmart with my mom as a kid and after buying a house in the neighborhood some 19 years ago, I was a regular Kmart shopper. My roommate, who grew up in the same neighborhood where we now live, pretty much had been shopping at that particular Kmart location his entire life.
When we first became Kmart shoppers, you could get frozen Cokes and grilled cheese sandwiches from the snack bar. My mom and I – both big sewers and crafters when I was growing up – would drive from Mount Clemens to 13 and Schoenherr and go to Lee Ward’s craft store and then across 13 Mile to the Kmart where at that time they had fabric and other sewing necessities. It was at that Kmart my mom bought me a pair of sneakers I wanted because they were white with black stripes like the ones Paul McCartney had worn on the Grammy Awards show that year. My roommate remembers walking or riding his bike to Kmart with his friends to buy various things young boys need like bubble gum with baseball cards, marbles and baseball gloves. After procuring their items, he and his friends would eat at the K Chef restaurant located on the parking lot in front of Kmart. Years ago, K Chef became The Ham Place where we now enjoy our Sunday brunch.
“The burgers,” Chris says, “were great.”
After buying a house less than a half mile away from the 13 Mile Kmart, each of us were at the store no less than twice a week. Bathroom rugs and a frog fountain for the yard. A rosebush that produced the most beautiful red roses tinged with white at the tips of the petals. Beadspreads, sheets, throw pillows, storage containers. Greeting cards, Christmas decorations and countless stocking stuffers including the obligatory tiny box of Whitman’s chocolates with just four delicious pieces of candy inside; perfect fit for any Christmas stocking! It was from that Kmart I also acquired countless hats – everything from summer straw to knitted winter hats – and my favorite leopard print skirt. I was trying to think last Sunday what was the very last thing I bought at that Kmart and I believe it was a box of parchment paper, a squeaky duck toy for my dog, and a pair of Joe Boxer pajama bottoms.
Over the years I came to know many of the Kmart employees if not by name then by sight. I have to say, everyone was always very friendly and their cheerfulness and helpfulness made shopping at Kmart a pleasant experience. And all of these people now looking for new jobs.
Honestly, I did not go into the store much since the first week they posted the “Store Closing” sign back in early November. Even at that stage, the items I typically shopped for were gone or very picked over. Before the first week of the official liquidation was complete, most of the grocery items were gone as were most of the personal grooming items like shampoo, razor blades and toothpaste. I began going to the Livonia Kmart close to my work and to the locations in Hazel Park and Fraser. Already I was feeling the sense of loss.
Chris started trying to get acclimated to Meijer. Like me he likes Meijer but says there are some days he just doesn’t feel like dealing with the hassle of getting in and out of both the parking lot and the store. Compared to running to the corner to Kmart it seems like a major undertaking.
So last Sunday on the very last day our 13 Mile and Schoenherr Kmart was to be open, Chris and I agreed to take one last walk around the store. Only a smattering of merchandise remained; there were no aisles and the store was just wide open space with fixtures, pegboard and other items for sale or free to be taken. We walked slowly – still not really believing this was the end.
Just as we were getting ready to leave I spotted the sign near the exit: Thank You for Shopping at Kmart and decided I needed to get a picture. An employee was standing nearby watching and said “I’ve taken so many pictures over the past few weeks but did not think to photograph that.” And she whipped out her cell phone.
Silly as it sounds I got choked up and started crying which prompted her to get teary eyed too.
“I thought I was OK and I’ve promised myself to be strong these weeks but I looked up and saw you crying and I just lost it,” she said.
I found out she had been at that same Kmart location longer than any other employee – 37 years. Her first job out of high school had been at Ponderosa . She was interested in restaurant management and food service and when a job opened at the Kmart deli (remember when Kmart had a deli??), she thought it sounded like fun and applied. Over the years she has worked in shipping and receiving, overnight stock management, and in hardline and then softline display. She has worn many hats and done many jobs and says she enjoyed most of it.
She stayed because she loved her job and the people she worked with. Even the bosses – or at least the vast majority – made working at the 13 Mile Kmart a great experience. When Kmart merged with Sears several years ago and offered employees a buyout, she was too young to retire. But this time she is doing just that. She can’t imagine working at a different Kmart location let alone a different company. For now, she is just going to try and enjoy the time off. Relaxation is on her agenda.
There is, she disclosed, a planned reunion for folks who have worked at that Kmart over the years. I was just glad I had the chance to meet and talk to her even if it was on the last day of the store’s existence. Its closing is not just the loss of a nice place to shop for those of us in the neighborhood but for people who worked there, it is the loss of a retail family. Truth be told I’m still adjusting. Already I’ve had the urge to take a five minute run to Kmart to pick up dog treats. Then I remembered that is no longer an option. I must allot more time, travel further. Go to a different store.
Less than 24 hours after our good buy visit, Chris reported that the big K was already removed from the old Kmart storefront. If you had never been there before you would not have known a Kmart ever existed there. My Kmart Camelot will be greatly missed.