The store where I worked my first job, the Kmart in West Columbia, is scheduled to close its doors for the last time this weekend.
I started my working life in 1987 at the Kmart in West Columbia, South Carolina.
That store and the only two other remaining Kmart locations in the state are set to shut down this month.
A couple of weeks ago during a visit to the family, I made it a point to stop by the store. I expected that quick visit to be my last chance to see it in person. But I learned they planned a get-together the following week for current and former employees.
So last Friday, I dropped by to say hello to a handful of familiar faces. (As well as a final goodbye to the store itself.) I chatted with a few people I knew from my relatively brief slice of the store’s 53 years of operation.
Once a major retail player
It has been a long goodbye for the discount retailer Sebastian Kresge founded in the mid-1960s. The first Kmart opened in 1962, just four months before the first Walmart.
The store where I worked opened on Oct. 27, 1966, just a few years before I was born.
This particular store was the 152nd Kmart to open and the second in the Columbia area. The first to open in the area, just outside of Fort Jackson, closed years ago.
If you weren’t around for the 1960s and 1970s, you may have a difficult time remembering how big Kmart once was.
When I was a kid, Kmart was a big deal. For the area, it was huge. As soon as you walked in the front door, you saw a deli area with popcorn and Icees. The toy section went on aisle after aisle.
For the folks, they sold just about everything you could imagine. Back then, they even sold material they’d cut by the yard.
A photo from opening day shows the big crowd.
When I started there, there were still plenty of crowds, particularly around Christmas time when Blue Light Specials would provide unexpected but welcome additional discounts.
By the time I left the store in 1992, the crowds had begun diminishing. Walmart, which had by then opened a store in West Columbia, was taking away some of the customers.
But I think Kmart’s own management team wasn’t exactly helping matters themselves.
The wrong kind of makeover
The familiar red and turquoise logo received a major makeover around 1990. It was now a giant K with the mart scribbled in cursive up the arm of the K. It appeared the look they were going for was closer to Target.
They tried, it seemed to me, to make Kmart look as much like Target as possible. But Kmart wasn’t a highbrow store. It didn’t become famous by being a highbrow store.
Kmart shoppers wanted Kmart prices, not Target prices.
It was the Blue Light Special that helped the store build a following. Yet, from what we were told, the company’s leaders suddenly decided it was a “cheap and degrading way to sell merchandise.” So they killed that gimmick.
And while they tried to sculpt a Target competitor, Walmart gained more and more steam.
By the time they brought back the Blue Light Special years later, it was far too late.
A ghost town
With a clearance sale well underway, they also put shelving and fixtures up for sale. They even marked down shopping carts!
The merchandise left took up about a quarter or so of the sales floor, leaving vast expanses of empty space.
I walked through some of that empty space, remembering which departments used to be where. The site depressed me. I remembered many of the co-workers I shared that space with for five years. Most of the ones I knew the best have long-since passed away.
Now, after more than half a century, that store’s lifespan has come to an end.
It was a good store and it was a good company.
A former co-worker of mine told me the other day he’d be shocked if there were any Kmart stores open in another two years. He may well be correct.
But I’ll miss this particular store.
Kmart 4141, West Columbia, South Carolina
Oct. 27, 1966-Dec. 15, 2019