Thursday, June 12, 2008

Solace, at a Kmart

(I've wanted to write about a odd revelation I experienced at a Kmart for a few years now. Then, Wil Wheaton beat me to the punch on his blog, writing about a Kmart memory in a post he liked so much he put it in his book. I'm not sure if unconsciously backed off when I read his post (it was before I started this blog and I wanted to write it as a short story) or if I've just put it off too long, but I'm finally writing about it now, before this local Kmart closes.)

There are places in the world that feel like home. Some are home, some are far away and just remind you of home. Some aren't exactly a home, but are so familiar, so comforting that you feel at home. I suppose you could feel this at a church, or in some place of natural beauty like the mountains or the ocean, or at some place that was fun in your childhood like an amusement park or a school, any school.

I've experienced these feelings of home in many different locations. I just never thought I'd feel it at Kmart.

The Kmart by our house I would describe as old school. Yes, it's now technically a Big K and lacks the familiar long Kmart sign you could see from a mile off (there was one off the exit to my Aunt Ceil's house in the far Chicago suburbs that when I was real young was the first recognizable landmark after a long drive from the city), but it is clearly a classic Kmart. I barely visited Kmart since moving from Chicago, maybe to buy underwear, motor oil or cheap sporting goods, but then we moved within about 1 1/2 miles of one when we bought our house. And after Eldest was born, it was a convenient trip if we needed cheap diapers.

One day, he was in the cart and I was wandering around the store, and it hit me -- this feels a little like home. The merchandise. The Kmart logo all over. The snack bar, complete with giant Icee cup. The lack of windows. The low-quality apparel. The store configuration. It all reminded me of going to Kmart as a kid.

And it's not like I lived in Kmart in my youth, but it was there as a viable shopping option. There was one on Harlem Avenue in Harwood Heights, another on Dempster and Greenwood in Niles. I saw a Rubik's Cube for the first time at a Kmart. My dad and I bought my mother bowling shoes for her birthday one year at a Kmart. My first golf balls were purchased at Kmart. I can picture its record department in 1981, when I was taking a giant interest in Top 40. Kmarts back then didn't have magazine racks, much to the lament of a video game magazine-obsessed preteen. The clothing racks at a Kmart are unique in a way I can't explain, just as its toy department and sporting goods department.

Amid this recognition, with my first son just several months old and my life clearly in transition, I found solace at Kmart. I walked around the store that day just admiring it, albeit in a campy, nostalgic sort of way. We got our picture, black and white, taken that day in a photo machine that was straight out of 1979 (even the sample photos on the side feature people with 1979 haircuts, only the dollar-bill slot belies any sort of upgrade). This Kmart is never crowded (I went on the day after Thanksgiving last year and avoided insane crowds and bought plenty of Christmas presents) and is so convenient. Yes, I've occasionally bought clothes there, but mostly household items, Christmas lights, etc. This Kmart just feels different than other discount department stores -- it doesn't have the frenetic consumerism of Wal-Mart, the cheery redness of Target, the Wisconsin vibe of Shopko, the unfamiliarity of what Sears has become. With other department stores long gone (Woolworth's, Zayre, TurnStyle, and of course, Venture, which I could write another whole post on) and since Wal-Mart, Target and Shopko didn't invade Chicago until the 1990s, only Kmart has endured in this very small corner of my brain.

But maybe not for long, at least for this store. There is a reason this Kmart is never crowded -- the Salt Lake City neighborhood surrounding it has upscaled past it (and this is Kmart, after all, still perceived as kind of a joke). The first sign of its demise -- the snack bar closed about three years ago. If you can't get an Icee at a Kmart, does it cease to be a Kmart? Wal-Mart owns the building and the land that this Kmart sits on, and it wants to evict its tenant, tear down the old building and build a new Supercenter. Though it's not much of an upgrade as far as reputation goes, Wal-Marts don't generally fail, and this side of town sort of needs one. That will be the trade-off -- cheaper groceries for that tiny bit of solace.

We still go to Kmart a couple times a month, usually to pick one or two things up (yesterday, for example, the boys and I went to buy Father's Day cards). On one visit a couple years ago, "Being With You" by Smokey Robinson played over Kmart's speakers, and it felt like 1981 again and I didn't want to leave. We wandered the store until the song ended, paid for our items and left. To rewrite Robert Frost a bit: Nothing gold can K.

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