Sears opened its first-ever store in Chicago 93 year ago. This summer, it will close its last department store in the city.
The embattled retailer informed employees at the Six Corners store on the edge of the Portage Park neighborhood Thursday of its plans to close in mid-July. With the store’s demise, Chicago is losing one more reminder of the heyday of a hometown company that was once the world’s largest retailer.
It’s just one store, but its planned shutdown comes after the company closed nearly a fifth of its U.S. department stores and shed more than 50,000 jobs in 2017. In the past seven years, it’s racked up more than $10.8 billion in losses.
A liquidation sale at the store, at the intersection of Milwaukee and Cicero avenues and Irving Park Road, is set to begin April 27. The adjacent Sears Auto Center will close in mid-May.
The company declined to say how many employees work at the Six Corners store. Employees will be given severance pay and the opportunity to apply for open positions at Sears or Kmart, also owned by Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings, the company said.
Customers at the store on Thursday, some of whom said they’d been shopping there for decades, were sad to hear it would close and expressed concern for the employees.
“I’m gonna miss this store,” said Cecilia Wietrzak, a resident of the Jefferson Park neighborhood who’s been shopping at Sears since 1975. These days, she goes there to buy inexpensive pajama pants and slippers for her father.
Elizabeth Cuebas, a great-grandmother who lives in the Uptown neighborhood, said she still shops there regularly for herself and her grandchildren.
“I was there three times last week,” said Cuebas, clutching a colorful reusable shopping bag. “That’s my store.”
But there seem to be fewer shoppers like her, said Tom Rogers, who lives nearby and came hoping to find some deals. “These days it doesn’t seem to be so busy,” he said.
Sears had already built a mail-order juggernaut out of its onetime headquarters in Chicago’s Homan Square neighborhood when it launched an experiment that would start a second retail empire: its first store.
The store opened in 1925 at the company’s mail-order plant at Homan Square, with an optical shop and soda fountain. Seven more stores followed that year.
The Six Corners store opened on Oct. 20, 1938. A $1 million building designed by Chicago architecture firm Nimmons, Carr & Wright, its single display window overlooking the intersection was the largest in the city at the time, according to Sears.
It was a massive one-stop shop, featuring a candy store and pet shop along with items shoppers expect to find in department stores today.
But as consumers have increasingly shifted where they shop, first to specialty big-box chains and more recently online, the store, however iconic, likely has much more value as real estate, said Neil Stern, senior partner at Chicago-based consulting firm McMillanDoolittle.
“Even if Sears was doing great, you would still question whether they need these urban stores, and certainly the size they had,” he said.
Stern said he thinks the closure could ultimately be an opportunity for the Six Corners retail district. The once-bustling area has seen some redevelopment in recent years.
“It’s a loss in terms of the nostalgia and for families who grew up shopping there, but in terms of what the next generation of shoppers is looking for, it’s not going to be a Sears,” Stern said.
The Six Corners property was one of 265 sold to Seritage Growth Properties, a real estate investment trust, when it was spun off from Sears in 2015. Sears CEO Edward Lampert is an investor in Seritage and chairman of the company’s board.
Sears continues to operate many of those stores, but Seritage has begun redeveloping others, including a former Sears at Orland Square Mall.
Seritage’s website lists the Six Corners property, including the 127,110-square-foot main building and the 56,180-square-foot auto center, available for lease.
Another option could be to demolish the buildings and redevelop the site. CoStar Group’s real estate database shows renderings of what appear to be new retail and residential structures built around an enclosed, outdoor area with a pool and other amenities. It’s unclear whether the renderings are conceptual or if Seritage already has specific redevelopment plans.
Seritage’s leasing broker for the site, CBRE Senior Vice President Joe Parrott, could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Preservation Chicago has sought to have the store and three other remaining Sears buildings in the city considered for landmark designation. One, in the Ravenswood neighborhood, operated for 90 years and was the longest-standing store in the chain when it closed in 2016.
“I think that would be a double tragedy to lose the retail institution as well as this really wonderful building,” Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller said.
Ald. John Arena, whose 45th Ward includes Six Corners, said he thinks there are potential opportunities to use some or all of the existing building in a redevelopment, but there are no firm plans for the site. In conversations with Seritage, “they understand the iconography of the building and how much it represents Six Corners,” he said.
“It’s sad, it’s a piece of history, but now we can start looking at what do we do going forward,” Arena said.
The store’s closure in July won’t be the end of Sears’ presence in the city.
Parent company Sears Holdings Corp. still has about 150 employees at its Loop office. Kmart still has one Chicago store, and there are Sears stores in North Riverside, Niles, Chicago Ridge, Vernon Hills, Schaumburg and Bloomingdale. The store at Oakbrook Center closed last summer for renovation and downsizing. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment on the status of the renovations.
“For more than 120 years, Sears has called Illinois home and that is not changing,” company spokesman Howard Riefs said in an emailed statement. “Although we are disappointed by this last store closure in Chicago, by no means does this change our commitment to our customers and presence to Chicago’s residents.”
Chicago Tribune’s Samantha Bomkamp and Ryan Ori contributed.