Until Wal-Mart came along and destroyed them like it has so many other businesses, Sears, Roebuck and Company was one of the merchandising behemoths of America. Along with J.C. Penney and Macy’s, Sears was one of those icons of American business, an instantly recognizable and trusthworthy brand name that assured quality goods in stores across the country. Going to a Sears store could be an adventure. In fact, it was on the second floor of a Sears that I first played with a futuristic new invention on display that went by the name of “Pong.” Like many others of my age, I’ll wager, I played my first video game in the back corner of the electronics department in a Sears store.
Then there was the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog. Every December kids across America would grab this telephone book-sized fantasia and flip to the toy section to circle what they wanted for Christmas, content in the knowledge that mom and dad would make a trip to the local store to buy what could be afforded and blame Santa for delivering what couldn’t. (The Sears & Roebuck catalog could also be found in bathrooms and beneath blankets across America as the older kids would bypass the toy section and head to the lady’s underwear section. Hey, it was a simpler time when hardcore pornography wasn’t immediately accessible to every horny teenager.)
And let’s not forget that enormous Sears Tower in Chicago. (Chi-Town, the city of big shoulders, that toddlin’ town, the windy city, the second city-does any one town need this many nicknames?) The Sears Tower was for a time the tallest building in the world and remains the tallest building in the United States. Interestingly, the tower has always been known simply as the Sears Tower and not the Sears & Roebuck Company Tower. In fact, Sears has rarely been referred to with the Roebuck name attached for decades now despite the fact that it began as a joint venture and Roebuck’s name always appeared on the catalog. Just whatever happened to that Roebuck guy anyway?
It is one of most infamously questionable business decisions in American history, perhaps second only to IBM’s buying the rights to use DOS from Bill Gates without the rights to also own the source code they had effectively already paid for. (Or those Indians selling the rights to Manhattan for $24. ) In the mid-1880s Richard Sears opened a watch company. Shortly thereafter, Sears placed an ad for a watch repairman who could supply his own tools and Alvah Roebuck was hired. By 1889 both men had foreseen that the watch business was too limiting and they sold it to raise cash to launch Sears, Roebuck, & Company, and the world of mail-order catalogs began. The company proved successful with its core clientele of Midwest farmers, but it was hardly an overnight sensation. Things were going well enough, but opening any business is hard enough, let alone a revolutionary new idea which customers initially view with suspicion. Such was the difficulties that Sears himself briefly quit. Not long after, Alvah Roebuck decided he’d had enough and made a deal for Sears to buy out his interest for $25,000. Obviously, that was hardly a pittance at the time, but Roebuck’s short-term needs cost him untold millions in the long run. Before too long Sears experienced phenomenal growth as it expanded its catalog business and began opening stores. Then it expanded into the tire industry under the name Allstate, which eventually transformed into the insurance company. Soon Sears was laying down the foundation that would be perfected by Sam Walton many decades later, resulting in the crash of this seemingly unbeatable merchandise powerhouse; Sears engaged upon an orgy of consuming smaller retail competitors as it expanded into a nationwide brand. By the 1960s if your town didn’t have a Sears, you weren’t worth stopping in. By the 1970s and 80s Sears was hardly just a retail store, it also owned Coldwell Banker and Dean Witter and the Discover Card. Of course, by then Alvah Roebuck had long been dead.
Roebuck died in 1948. The story is not one that contains the scene that might be expected. A movie based on this story would probably have Roebuck storming into the office of his old partner and demanding his rights to the millions that had been made using his name. In fact, it was Sears who went to Roebuck and offered him the opportunity to reclaim his stake in the company after it had become a license to print money. (Try to imagine Bill Gates doing that!) For reasons that remain his own, Roebuck declined Sears’ offer, instead choosing to become an office clerk making a good salary and earning stock in the company’s profit-sharing plan. When Roebuck died that was the full extent of his financial interest in the company he’d help create.