Sears, the big book and America

It was many a decade ago, a rainy day when I trudged up the steps to the 3rd floor attic under the tiles and the rafters of my mother’s ancestral house in Pallavur, a remote village located close to the Western Ghats in South India. Radio was around, but no great fun, neither TV or movie theatres (close by) existed in those days, so playing outdoors with cousins was the thing to do. For some reason I was alone that day (I guess the intensity of the monsoon rain & lightning), and this bored 10 year old was looking for things to do.

The attic was always ideal for such times. An abundance of mystery lurked in the darkness, and due to the unexpected, like witches, ghosts, snakes, spiders, bats & mongoose, it was sometimes a bit spooky too. But braving all the sinister possibilities, I stepped up the ladder through the corner room to the attic. The attic had an assortment of old boxes, a few big tortoise shells (where they came from, I have not the faintest clue – I concluded that grandpa brought them from his travails to Africa while serving in the British army?) an old moose or deer head with big antlers to complete, its eyes dolefully looking at me, lying in a corner next to a bison head giving baleful looks. I always wondered why the hunter did not stop even after seeing the sadness in those deer’s eyes. The musty smell lingering in the air did not bother me, not did the dampness suppress the discoverer’s zeal in me. Walking around, I saw the box which held a lot of coconut palm leaf scrolls, rumor had it that it was some Nambuthiri’s scrolls on ancient medicine, it was not very interesting, nor could I read the etched words clearly. Most of the stuff was old, but during this visit, I found one box that had been carted up recently, so that new addition was today’s target of attack.

Lighting was quite dim up there and electric connections had not been brought up to the attic. A good idea actually, because the monsoon season would make the attic pretty damp and dangerous with a few tile leaks here & there, wiring those days was not PVC coated copper, but some rubber that easily broke up after some years of use. Opening the box in question was easy, though it yielded nothing of much interest. It was all books and files. One of the books was very thick and looked foreign. Beautifully printed and full of pictures, it caught my eye. I decided to spend the afternoon in my room below, burrowing into its contents.

It was a Sears’s catalog that my shippie (merchant navy officer) uncle had brought back from America. He had brought it along to show samples of life in the new world, to his mother, sisters and brother. By then, I knew a little bit about America, I had seen maps in the black & white volumes of ‘Book of Knowledge’ we had in Calicut, but this was all in color & beautifully bound. I leafed through the sections, seeing different looking men wearing flashy trousers and shirts, glossy shoes, women wearing skirts and strange things like makeup, gloves & scarves. Aha! Even had girls wearing bras!! It was fascinating and so new. I was transported in an instant to that new land and that was when America first registered in my mind.

Suits and hats were not new to us as grandpa had a few and after his death they were still stored in one of the attic boxes. We used to take turns wearing the bowler hat, it used to cover half our face!! I pored over the Sears catalog the rest of that afternoon, taking in all those bright tools & contraptions, toys, electronics, record players and what not…till it was dark and there were other things to do. The book was put back into the box in the attic and was forgotten until the next vacation. I continued to refer to the book every vacation and I dreamed so many times, of seeing America some day.

Readymade clothes were uncommon in India; tailors did a great job of stitching ‘made to measure’ shirts & shorts, even pants (trousers). When I got to college, I wanted to get a jacket stitched, and the tailor obviously had no clue how to stitch one. He stated that a picture of one would help him get one done. So it was back to the Sears catalog, for a early 70’s denim waister jacket’s picture, as it was fondly known. I ripped off a beloved page & handed it over to the tailor, who made a perfectly fitting jacket, to a design that nobody else had in college. Man, was I on top of the world…That denim jacket lasted a couple of years and so did the memory of the Sears catalog, its pictures, the guarantees, the promises and the lure of advertising.

At college, I subscribed to the ‘Span’ magazine, a free magazine about America from USIS, it gave me even more insight about this country and its people. Then my cousin got married to a chap who had done his masters in US and was working there, and I thought that maybe I should also go see the new world, like they all did. Various reasons, including monetary ones made me forget all that for more than a decade. The American dream was thus shelved.

I soon found myself outside India and working in the Middle East, like many other Mallu’s & Indians. At the first given opportunity, I made a tourist visit to various US cities with my family, and one of the first things I did was go and check a Sears store out. It did not disappoint me, nor did the US. It was some years later that I reluctantly took up a position to come to USA. It was a daunting period. Like most new immigrants, the credit worthiness was a problem, and again it was neighborhood Sears that came to my rescue, by providing a Sears card. Much of my purchase thence was from Sears, mainly owing to gratitude. Little did Sears know or care, but well, the quality of goods was OK too, I guess. After a few years as a resident alien, I left…one of the things I still recall doing was casting that longing look at the nearby mall & Sears, as I bade goodbye.

Soon Sears was gobbled up by Kmart, I had moved to another country and life moved on…My relationship with US continued, and two years later, I found myself back in the US on another transfer with the same company. My relations with Sears took a nosedive when the Sears card became a bank card and a simple misunderstanding with an overzealous bank representative & custodian of the Sear’s credit card got blown out of proportion and they blocked my card. With that, I got bitter and stopped regular shopping at Sears.

Thinking back, Sears represented so much of America to me, as it does now. A country that created so much, hardly innovates these days. Companies like Sears that towered the malls, just stumble along, ownerships changing often…The Sears catalog is long gone, but I still hope that the dreams of its people will continue, after all, without those dreams, there is no future for this once great country, once rich in its people, their thoughts & intellect.

The sears catalog
In 1888, Richard Sears first used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry. A master at slogans and catchy phrases, Richard Sears illustrated the cover of his 1894 catalog declaring it the "Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone," and the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth," claiming that "Our trade reaches around the World." Sears also knew the importance of keeping customers, boldly stating that "We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer." Sears added a color section in 1897. The 1903 catalog included the commitment "Your money back if you are not satisfied”. Reflecting modern trends in retailing, the company decided to stop producing the general catalog in 1993.

They are still available for purchase
from collectors. Here is a sample of an old sears catalog – much like the one I saw for many years. You could check out a 1902 edition here. LA times had an article titled – Many American dreams come out of the Sears catalog.

Pictures courtesy –


diyadear said…
oh mr maddy.. its soo well written.. ya i remember catalogues n books of bombay dying, vimal, garden n all used to impress me so much as a kid..
Nanditha Prabhu said…
you have weaved the story so well!it was nice to imagine you pondering in your attic!
we too have a Sears here! though I have not shopped from there ! when ever I see sears now I will be reminded of you and your american dream.:)
GVK said…
Nice post. Your reference to Radio being no great fun rings a bell; reminds me of B V Keskar, I&B minister with penchant for the boring. Wasn't he the guy who banned Kishore Kumar and harmonium on AIR? They used to term the Radio fare as the Keskar music.
Naveen said…
wonderfully written's amazing isn't it ... how some childhood fascinations come true ..... some of our thoughts must have the effect of involuntary prayers ......don't you think so? ...
Guru said…
"Ready made clothes were uncommon in India". This is a sweeping statement as I used to buy ready made clothes in a store in Mysore near Geetha Book House in 1962, in Bangalore in a store in Gandhi Bazaar in 1961, New Delhi(Connaught place)in 1960 and in stores near my uncle's home in Santa Cruz Bombay in 1960. I even bought my first suit in Bangalore in 1962. It is true that families had their favourite tailors and they were notorious delayers.

About Sears. Sears took off in a big way during late 1960s and early 1970s when they conducted massive sales during Thanks Giving period in November. It was the time for me a resident in Ohio at that time to hunt for bargains during the Sales weeks as during other times their goods were expensive. The choices I often found were restricted. Other superstores had periodic sales and Sears took a hit from this, leading to the K-mart hands in Sears. I do not think Sears Card is a bank card, but a store card. There are important differences between the two. I am surprised that you had problems with Sears card. I got one when I visited a Sears Store later after years of living in Europe even though I was a resident in Europe, and my bank was a European bank. Sears had very close links with the Mastercard firm and as long as one had a clean credit rating with Mastercard, acquiring Sears card was not a problem at that time. When I brandished my MasterCard from my European bank my acceptance went through without a glitch! They kept on sending their advertising blurbs to me in Europe for a long time and until recently I was contacted by their sister stores in Europe!
Maddy said…
diya, nanditha, gvk,naveen
thanks a lot, glad you found my nostalgic thoughts interesting
gvk - i vaguely recall there was another reason for KK's ban..can't remember what it was.i did not know about the harmonium...strange.

guru - I used the word 'uncommon' which is relative to what the situation is today in India and compared to the outside world then. Bespoke clothing was the order of the day,at least for the common man. The economical readymade clothing wave started really with Raymonds, recall the 'pantloon' range? and Charag din for shirts.

As regards Sears, things changed in 2004. The store card (which was great) changed to a master card run by Citibank. I hung on to my old card, but when we got back to Californian shores , we had some hassles over the address change, and the card got blocked for many weeks!!
Maddy said…
GVK - Keskar apparently banned all Hindi music from radio for awhile 'due to its corrupting influence' in 1952. KK was banned for refusing to sing at a Congress rally, Sanjay Gandhi apparently was the chap behind it!!!

and Yes, the harmonium was banned in AIR for close to 30 years following Keskar's dikkat!
Guru said…
I looked at Sears cards advertised in their sites. Still look like store cards to me( sears card and sears gold card Mastercard). The bank card as I understand and use is invariably a debit card as opposed to what Sears advertises which by their description sounds like store cards or credit cards. Which is understandable as bank cards (these days debit cards) are the means to debit the money out of one's account (Hence no interest involved) and credit cards lend credit to customers at a certain percentage interest. All stores including Sears, K Mart and others that I know in the Western world promote their own store cards(credit cards)linked to a well known credit company. The stores act in a highly competitive world, and bank cards(debit cards)bringing no interest to them which can make the difference between profit and loss for their business.

For a long time (up and until mid-1990s) Ohio food superstores like Kroger never entertained credit cards (did not promote their own cards, very few do these days)as by principle they were against loans and interest and wanted a clean cash/debit card transaction every time.
harimohan said…
dear maddy
sears starting off your dream to sucess and making you reach its hores was written nicely ,nostalgia welled in me of attics in my native parappanangadi in my childhood
great blog
harimohan said…
dear maddy
once again a great post that brought nostalgia of my holidays in kerala and its attics
Maddy said…
thanks hari - most of us have had those nostalgic times...

Guru thanks - I will try & get rid of my sears credit card and get a regular store card...
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