Pending closure brings back fond memories of Santa Rosa Sears store

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As soon as the news of the fall of the iconic chain store formerly known as Sears, Roebuck & Co. was announced, nearly every columnist in the nation — maybe the world, I don’t read Chinese — had taken on the topic.

Many of these writers are, wittingly or unwittingly, writing the local history of their towns. As am I.

The Santa Rosa store, now the south-end anchor of the Santa Rosa Plaza, we are told, will be out of business by year’s end. It seems an appropriate time to remember what Santa Rosa, specifically B Street downtown, was like BTM (Before the Mall).

Come on along then on a 1950s walk on the west side of B, starting across from the Hoag House and heading north. Just on our side of the street we’re going to pass businesses with names familiar in old Santa Rosa — the Mark Haines welding shop, Nelligan’s feed store, Al’s Place, one of the 30 or more taverns, saloons, bars, call them what you will, between E Street and the Northwestern Pacific tracks.

On the north side of Fourth Street is the Occidental Hotel, which takes up the whole block with doors to the lobby in the center. At the corner is the entrance to Keegan’s Brothers men’s store where the Sullivan brothers (go figure…) were the last word in haberdashery. Ruth’s Beauty Shop, the Ladies Arcade dress shop and the Alice Marie hat shop lined the hotel block.

We cross Fifth Street to The Roxy theater, which was once a vaudeville house with rocking seats in the balcony. Every theater has a candy store next door and the Roxy’s is Chauncey Wolcott’s. We buy Black Jack chewing gum and walk on up B Street as the big, noisy Greyhound buses make their way into the depot on the corner.

Now we’re passing a store called Family Liquors, without a trace of irony, and Lafferty & Smith Mortuary. Across the street, the First Baptist Church, built from just one redwood tree milled in Guerneville, is famous thanks to Santa Rosa’s own Robert Ripley’s Believe or Not. His mother was a member.

Now we pass Bishop Motors. Bob Bishop’s Ford agency stretches all the way back to A Street in mid-block with another sprawl from Fifth to Seventh. Bishop, who is on the State Highways Commission, is a political force.

And here’s the California Theater, where the Townsends sold candy in the tiny store next door before they moved to the new Town & Country development at the end of McDonald Avenue.

We stop to study the architecture of the impressive Victorian Scottish Rite Temple, where if you know a Shriner you might get to see the Kurlander Collection of old Santa Rosa artifacts in the attic, well-dusted with equal amounts of bug powder and dead bugs.

That’s where they keep the nooses used to lynch the three guys who killed the sheriff in 1920. These grim artifacts are considered treasures and the object of considerable curiosity. Time to get out of here and go next door.


Which brings us directly the topic of the week: Sears, Roebuck & Co. It’s the “new store” at the corner of B and Seventh, having been welcomed to town in 1948.

You’re going to smell popcorn the minute you open the door. There’s a machine in the main aisle in front of the candy counter, and it seems that it’s forever being popped, always fresh. So fresh that people speculate about what they did with the hour-old popcorn. (Interestingly, several columnists in towns losing their Sears have popcorn memories. And I thought it was just me.)

You might walk through to the garden shop at the back, if it’s time to plant pansies. Or you might riffle through the dress racks, or gauge the quality of the red rubber soles on the white buck shoes in that department or buy a screwdriver set for a Father’s Day gift in the basement.


This was pretty much the way things were until such things as multiscreen theaters and downtown malls entered the national consciousness.

As I have suggested, the closure announcement has provided a topical boom for commentators across the country who have explored every aspect of the story.

Business writers are explaining why it’s happening, how the big-box stores are the next new thing. Others are saying internet shopping (starts with an A) is to blame. Still, others are saying mistakes were made — that Sears, Roebuck & Co., with its century of mail-order experience, was perfectly positioned to take the lead when Internet shopping began but missed that boat.

Others are writing about Sears’ place in the march of retail history and, interestingly, in the role it played in easing the Jim Crow years in the South by granting access — and credit — to all customers. And, right here at home, it was one, if not the first, retailer to employ black clerks.

Some are taking it personally, overflowing with memories of prom dresses purchased, of Christmas vacation jobs, of their friendly appliance repairmen.

Catalogs are top memories, too. For many in rural areas, miles from department stores, the catalog was where you turned pages and drew arrows as birthdays and Christmas came around, where your school clothes came from, where your father could buy farm supplies. Maybe even a plow? And your grandparents bought a mail-order house.

People called it “the dream book,” and that seemed appropriate because while it didn’t teach manners per se, it did demonstrate what a well-run household needed.

Those commentators looking forward speculate on what comes next. Is it more bad news for malls in general? (Of course it is!) And what will happen to those Sears spots in all those malls all over the country? Will they become health and fitness centers or be taken over by big-box stores? Will a more charitable dream of space for affordable housing come true?


The story in our paper said Sears had opened in 1980. As we saw on our walkabout, that’s three decades short of true. That was the year that Sears moved to the mall.

Sears opened in Santa Rosa in 1948, in a new building at the corner of Seventh and B Street (now the northern end of the mall garage).

It was the largest and most modern retail store between San Francisco and Portland and was welcomed with much fanfare as another step in a plan to expand as a regional center — another star in the crown of Santa Rosa’s post-World War II downtown.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this column misidentified the Kurlander Collection. The name has been corrected.

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