Monday, December 28, 2020

A Narrative From When I Was Tiny


Back when my raging social anxiety and moderate misanthropy were my only obstacles to in-person social interaction, I would often be asked how my interest in tracking down the surviving locations of mostly defunct restaurant, and occasionally, retail chains began. In many answerings of this and similar questions, I honed a boilerplate response that would be something to the effect of, “I liked to eat at Taco Tico and G.D. Ritzy’s when I was a kid in the ‘90s in Kentucky. All the locations of those two chains near me closed at around the same time, and when I discovered, years later, that there were surviving locations of both chains, it made me wonder what other survivors may be out there.” I’d then credit the late, great Evil Sam Graham’s work in the fast food blogosphere for being my inspiration to document my adventures in writing, and then excuse myself from the conversation as graciously as possible in accordance with the aforementioned social anxiety and my strict upbringing in a culture of honor. 


While my carefully crafted response was the truth and nothing but the truth, however, it did not reflect the whole truth. It showcased merely the most prominent threads in the tapestry of my fixation on anachronistic restaurants and stores. In actuality, a veritable panoply of experiences led to me becoming the very specific type of nerd that I am today, and since I can’t exactly take a multistate road trip to eat inside a restaurant without posing a significant risk to myself and others these days, I thought I’d reminisce about one of my earliest experiences visiting a surviving location of a broken chain instead. 


It was my Aunt Sis who introduced me to G.D. Ritzy’s in the early 1990s, shortly before it became a broken chain. She was often gracious enough to take me and my younger brother on various outings, not only to G.D. Ritzy’s but also to movies and on Christmas shopping trips anytime my parents required respite from the daily horrors of raising children. One day out with Aunt Sis in particular sticks out in my mind as one of my earliest, perhaps my first encounter with what was then a broken chain. 


During my elementary school years, Aunt Sis’s mother, my paternal grandmother, Granny Nova Scotia Actionsdower was in her late 70s, living alone in Stanford, Kentucky. My father and aunt would each try and make the drive down from the Lexington area once a week to check in on her and help with household chores, as did her other son, my uncle, and my numerous adult cousins, all of whom lived nearby in and around Stanford. On a spring day in the mid 1990s, Aunt Sis saw fit to bring me along on a trip to Granny Nova Scotia's house instead of our usual lunch and movie, perhaps in an effort to assassinate two proverbial pigeons with the same pyrite. Even in her prime, Granny was a mediocre driver, and she relied on friends and family to chauffeur her on out of town excursions by the time she was deep into her retirement years. 


Granny was an avid collector of S&H Green Stamps, trading stamps used as a marketing tool by various small businesses to various extents throughout the 20th century and to almost no extent by the dawn of the 21st. The stamps were sold in bulk to business owners who would then give them out to customers in proportion to the dollar amount of their transactions in an effort to attract new customers and encourage existing ones to spend more. Customers then collected the stamps, often pasting them by the hundred in special green stamp books. They could then trade them for items from the S&H Green Stamp catalogs as well as brick and mortar Green Stamp stores. If you’ve ever saved Pepsi points, Camel Cash, or any chain restaurant loyalty points, the concept is similar, except, multiple unrelated businesses gave out Green Stamps and/or other brands of trading stamps regardless of which items a customer purchased. Trading stamps gradually began to fall out of fashion in the 1970s, and things like rewards credit cards serve a similar function today. 


Back in the mid 1990s with Aunt Sis and Granny Nova Scotia, Green Stamps still existed, but were clearly a relic of another time and not long for this world, not unlike Granny Nova Scotia herself. The only business I ever witnessed handing out Green Stamps was the bizarrely old fashioned pharmacy in my hometown that still had a working art deco soda fountain and lunch counter and shelves stocked with decades-old brittle and yellowed packages of Brylcreem and Ipana. Naturally, Granny Nova Scotia enlisted my father to have all of her prescriptions filled by the crusty old pharmacist who ran the place just like his crustier older father before him so she could reap the Green Stamp rewards. She had likewise enlisted Aunt Sis to drive her 35 miles south to Somerset Kentucky on the day in question, with me in tow, to the nearest Green Stamp store, which had recently announced its impeding permanent closure. 


Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the visit to the store itself other than vague memories of standing in a long line amid half-bare shelves in some tiny, nondescript storefront in a strip mall, but the experience gave me a lasting appreciation of the then vanishing, now extinct, concept of trading stamps and perhaps also instilled in me an interest in tracking down the businesses that offer a glimpse into a different time, and whose brands still manage to exist in some small way despite overwhelming odds to the contrary. It was then that I had my earliest inkling about the broken chains that may still be out there hiding in plain sight. I like to think I had the foresight to make a mental note to look into that 20 to 25 years later, but I very likely didn't. 


As if to really emphasize the lesson that a handful surviving locations of a chain often last long past the majority of their brethren, our next stop after Granny cashed in her Green Stamps was at the Somerset Kmart. Granny At the time, Kmart was still a relevant retail brand, merely approaching the precipice of its ultimate decline, but I recall the visit to that Kmart being a nostalgic experience for me even at the tender age of 8 or 9 since the only Kmart my family would ever visit with any regularity was the one in Nicholasville which had closed a year or two before. 


It was late in 2018  when I learned that the Somerset Kmart was still open for business, and was the only Kmart I had visited as a child that was still in operation. It was Memorial Day weekend 2019 by the time I paid the store a visit, which turned out to be well-timed, as its liquidation and closure were announced only a few weeks later, along with the only other surviving Kentucky Kmart in Erlanger. I’ve visited and documented many doomed Kmarts over the years, and I took a walk through the store executing the routine photography protocol I had developed over the course of countless Kmart runs. I was saving the pictures for a rainy day, and since this year has been a deluge, now seems as good a time as any to share images of the Somerset Kmart near the end. 


A sign adorned with branded word salad greeted me in the parking lot.

The exterior was in decent shape by Kmart standards. 

These cart corral signs are usually weathered and faded, not so here. 

The garden center was even operational, a rarity at the time. I'd be surprised to hear there are any Kmarts that still have operational garden centers these days. 


There might still be a Kmart pharmacy or two kicking around though. 

More Pharmacy marked by classic Kmart signage.

It's been a year and a half, so I can't be sure, but I think I took this picture so I could mention that the alleged discount price was dropped from a grossly inflated one, and was still comparatively high. I had bought a comparable freezer from Menards earlier that year at full price, which was well below $200. 

More classic, if inaccurate signage. I haven't seen actual music and video in a Kmart music and video section in years. 

Most Kmarts have these giant round ceiling vents. I try to photograph one in every store I visit. I remember seeing them in more places years ago, but they've mostly vanished from everywhere but Kmart thanks to their perpetually delayed store upgrades and maintenance.  


Starting around the 2018 bankruptcy, Sears and Kmart really had trouble convincing their suppliers they could pay for merchandise. Bare shelves abounded as a result. 

This is the typical appearance of a Kmart soft drink aisle. This picture is from the spring of 2019, long before panic buying became a thing. 

This was a blatant lie, unless they meant that the sales floor would be completely empty and the store closed by the end of the year. 

The Die Hard automotive battery shelf has been nearly empty at every Kmart I've visited in recent memory. One of Sears/Kmart's last assets of any value, the Die Hard brand has since been sold to Advance Auto Parts as part of CEO Eddie Lampert's years-long quest to profit off the lumbering decline of the Sears and Kmart brands. 

Again, it was late May in Kentucky on the day of my visit. The temperature outside was close to 90 degrees, but the Somerset Kmart had plenty of rock salt and snow shovels for sale at full price. 

Plastic totes spread out to hide bare shelves; this was a common site at many of the Kmarts I've visited. It probably still is, but I haven't been to a Kmart in almost a year. 

The Layaway counter likely looked exactly as it did when I was last here during the first term of the Clinton administration. 

Every Kmart has a breakfast nook on display. Who buys them? Nobody knows. 

It wasn't all snow shovels and rock salt. To their credit, they did have a nice display of patio furniture and Kenmore-branded grills. I don't believe Fast Eddie has sold off the Kenmore brand... yet. 

Florescent lighting always looks bleakest in a Kmart. 

As with all my Kmart visits, I try to spend a little money while I'm there gawking. 

The furniture department didn't look half bad. 

This was once the in-store cafe. It was off to one side, though I remember it being at the back of the store. I'm probably wrong though. I was only there once 25 years ago. 


But that’s not all! In January of this year, my beloved Esmeralda Fitzmonster and I took a trip to South Florida, and we managed to visit two of the three operating Kmarts in the Florida Keys. Most people would probably regret spending their last vacation in the final carefree days before cataclysm gripped the world shopping at Kmart, but I am not most people, and Esmeralda was and continues to be a good sport about my various quirks and flaws. In accordance with Broken Chains year-end tradition, below are a selection of photos of those two island Kmarts, who along with around 35 other locations spread far and wide across the U.S. and its territories are the last that have managed to stay in operation. 


Kmart in Key Largo; not pictured are the wild chickens that roamed the parking lot. 

It was the first time I had encountered these cylindrical department signs. They're apparently part of a rare decor package, and I'm the kind of guy who gets excited about that type of thing. 

Remember before when I said every Kmart had a breakfast nook on display? The one in Somerset was $100 cheaper. 

Another rare, if inaccurate, cylindrical department sign. 

The Marathon Kmart is unique in that it has a massive section of the store devoted to fishing equipment and is adorned with an ocean-themed mural. 

Mural detail 

They still had plenty of Christmas wrapping paper out on MLK Day weekend, but it was at least marked down. 

The Kmarts in the Keys were among the nicest I've visited in recent memory. While definitely dated, they still felt functional, serving tourists and locals alike. Hopefully the lack of competition in the area will keep the Key Largo, Marathon, and Key West Kmarts going a while longer. 


That's it for 2020 blog posts. I'm going to try to post at least once per month moving forward, and I hope to be able to hit the road again and return to something closer to my five post per month schedule once things are a little more normal, hopefully sometime in 2021. Thanks for sticking with me during the weird times. 







6 comments:

  1. Kinetic kentucky kid kinfolk knowledge kaliedoscope! Kuite klever!

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  2. My undergrad institution of learning is in rural Indiana (probably a place you've visited near in your travels), and I was stunned to find an operating Kmart upon returning there in 2012. It stayed in existence until 2018 or 2019, but remained the kind of place that was depressing to enter, and that you swore you'd never come back to every time you left.

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  3. Excellent Kmart recap, thank you. The cafe was always in the front of the store off to the side in my experience, but that may have varied by region.

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  4. My mom always took the green stamps when she grocery shopped in Lynchburg, VA, but she never actually did anything with the stamps. She just threw them all in a drawer in the kitchen.

    Eventually one of my brothers and I decided to pry all the wads of stamps out of the drawer and stick them in the stamp books my mom had also accumulated.

    I don't remember how many books we filled up but it was enough to buy something (naturally I don't remember what) at the Green Stamp store. Took quite a while to persuade our father to drive us over there, but he finally gave in. Whatever it was we bought was trivial, and we never did that again. Either Mom quit taking the stamps or she just threw them all out. This happened sometime prior to the summer of 1963 when we moved somewhere else where the grocery store didn't give out stamps.

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  5. I'm surprised that there was still an operating Green Stamp Store anywhere as late as 1996. Ours (Burlington, VT) shut down in the early '80s to become a Service Merchandise and is now a supermarket, as is our Kmart which closed around 2016.

    FWIU retailers never liked Green Stamps since they'd naturally prefer to operate their own reward/loyalty programs that pulled customers back into their own stores. The current owners of the S&H brand are trying to establish online "Greenpoints" but that ship's sailed - and the documentation they require if you want to redeem Grandma's old Green Stamps with them borders on the laughable.

    About the time you went to Florida I visited the last operating Kmart in northern (possibly all of) New England, in West Lebanon NH just over the VT/NH line (as in, the property almost directly abuts the Connecticut River and is just off the I-89 bridge). It appears to have closed this past summer; https://www.vnews.com/West-Lebanon-Kmart-appears-poised-to-close-34530625 (soft paywall).

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  6. There is only one Kmart left it its own home state. From the reviews it will not be for much longer

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