I purchased my last model airplane kit the same day I purchased my first Rock 45. I was 13, and at the Sears store at Cumberland Mall. After paying for my new model plane, I had two dollars and some coins left over. I could have gone over to the wonderful Sears candy counter but before I made any decisions, I happened past the stereo and record department.
Hearing a song I liked, I stopped to see where it was coming from. What caught my eye next was a rack containing rows of 45 RPM records. I spotted both of my current favorite hits and then discovered that they only cost .98 cents each and I could afford to buy both of them.
The idea that I could actually own the current hits that I was hearing on Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40,” was new to me. I could take them home and play them at any time I wanted and not have to wait for their rotation on my radio. I selected two 45’s, which also happened to be my two favorite current hits which were “Enjoy Yourself” by The Jacksons and “Car Wash” by Rose Royce. I paid the cashier at the record department register and she placed them into a colorful Sears Record Department bag.
Sears and Roebuck was founded in 1892 by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck. The pair began their business selling gold watches and jewelry as the A. C. Roebuck Watch Company, and by the following year the company became known as Sears, Roebuck and Co. offering a diversified array of products through their famous mail-order catalog. They opened their first brick and mortar store in 1925, and by the 1970’s they were a major anchor store in most American shopping malls.
During the peak years of the vinyl record industry, the Sears record department’s inventory was stocked by what were known as Rack Jobbers. These were not employees of Sears, but the staff of independent vendors who had the task of keeping multiple department stores, five and dimes, drug stores, and other various retail outlets stocked with whatever amounts of music (and music accessories) they wanted to sell.
The Mall that was closest to my home at that time was Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody. Perimeter Mall did not have a Sears store. To visit Sears, my father had to drive either to Cumberland Mall to the west, or to Northlake Mall to the east. Perimeter did have a Rich’s and a JC Penny. At JC Penny I discovered another record department that I liked just as much as Sears.
JC Penny was founded in 1902 by James Cash Penny and operated under the name The Golden Rule. By 1912, Mr. Penny had expanded to 34 stores. He then renamed the stores JC Penny. Like Sears, JC Penny had a mail order catalog and by the 1970’s was also one of the other major anchor stores in U.S. shopping malls.
Like Sears, the JC Penny record department was also stocked by Rack Jobbers. Another important function of the Rack Jobbers was to work with the store to organize promotional events and to supply the promotional items for the store’s displays and print ads.
On my next record department field trip, I added “The Rubberband Man” by The Spinners to my 45 stash. I continued saving all of my allowance money to buy more 45s at Penny’s. Over the next few months, I managed to buy “Dancing Queen” (Abba), “More Than a Feeling” (Boston), “I Wish” (Stevie Wonder), “Evergreen” (Barbara Streisand), and “Feels Like the First Time” (Foreigner).
After I had purchased my first few 45’s, my father, bless him, had the foresight to see that my old RCA portable player was wearing out and was not going to do justice for the records that I was beginning to buy. He decided to hand down to me his Panasonic stereo with a BSR turntable.
He taught me how to hook up the speaker and phono jacks to the proper receptacles in the back of the receiver, and where to place the speakers. I now had my very own stereo! As a child I had collected matchbox cars and then Hot Wheels, electric trains, and then on to model kits. Mentioning this to my father, I asked him what he thought I would collect after I moved on from records. His response was “nothing.” He then explained to me that records would be something that I would not outgrow because as I grew older, and my tastes changed, the music that I purchased would grow and change with me. He knew what he was talking about.
One Pennys experience that I recall happened in the summer of 1979. The Knack had just released their rocking debut single “My Sharona,” I wanted to have one of them. I mowed some grass to earn a little record money and fairly soon went on a trip to the Perimeter Mall JC Penny.
Once I got to the record department, I immediately spied the record displayed in the top row of hits with its semi-risqué picture sleeve. The problem was that there was a group of three college-age shoppers standing in front of it, mocking it and singing the song in a sarcastic manner. The two girls in the party acted rather put off by the sleeve too. I tried to make myself inconspicuous on another isle of the department until they wandered off to housewares to make fun of blenders or something. Once they were out of sight, I proudly nabbed my copy of the Power Pop platter.
With the rise of the chains of mega-inventory record stores and then the big-box value stores, the mall department stores eventually backed out of the record, tape and CD market, letting their music departments shrink smaller and smaller until they had none at all. The retail music shoppers had found more attractive and more competitive alternatives. I did too.
Some Sears Extra Tidbits
Sears had their very own custom record label. In the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Sears issued dozens of exclusive records in the categories of Easy Listening, Pop, Folk, Country, and Christmas music.