I’ve seen hundred year old churches close and some fall to the wrecking ball. So the shuttering of Kmart at Pittston Commons should not have hit me as hard as it has.
I hadn’t given it much thought until I ran over to Redner’s the other evening and for the first time saw the empty building. I wanted to turn away. To drive right by. But I had to stop and look. No punch in the stomach could have felt worse. I needed to contemplate why.
It’s not that I was a Kmart regular. Unlike many shoppers who’d claim to be “always” there, I was not. But it was always there. And that meant something.
Whether it was in the middle of hanging my outdoor Christmas lights and discovering a string was burned out, or suddenly realizing it was Halloween and I had no candy for the kiddos, or needing a last minute birthday card or gift bag, Kmart was just five minutes away and always, or so it seemed, open.
But my melancholy goes deeper than that.
It goes to freezing pre-Christmas mornings ringing a bell at a Salvation Army kettle with Jay Delaney by my side, and before him, the late, lovable Coray Miller, who much to my embarrassment would chase after people to tell them they forgot to make a donation. Jay and I took a more low-key approach.
It goes to bumping into countless friends, often times not looking my best as I dashed over in the middle of a gardening project for one more bag of mulch.
And it goes to the late Henrietta Barbieri, the stunningly beautiful wife of one-time Pittston Area football coach Bob Barbieri, who after her kids were grown returned to the workforce as a Kmart checker and before long was running the place.
And then there’s Grants.
Like Kmart, the W.T. Grant department store chain seemed invincible, as much a part of America as hot dogs at ball games and fireworks on the Fourth of July. When Grants, launched by William Thomas Grant in 1906, left Main Street, Pittston, where a parking lot now exists, it moved to the very Pittston Commons location just vacated by Kmart, although we called that shopping center Pittston Plaza in those days.
I was a jack-of-all-trades at the Sunday Dispatch then, writing sports on Fridays and Saturdays but working in advertising during the week. Grants was one of my accounts. Interestingly, it may have been Kmart that began chipping away at Grants’ business as the store stumbled in the early ’70s.
As a last ditch effort to reinvigorate itself, W.T. Grant changed its name to Grant City but, despite dozens of loyal, local shoppers, could not hold off the future and closed its doors in 1976.
Grants brought a trio of men into my world and each in his own way exerted an influence on me.
Chet Cornman, whose name may have been spelled with a ‘K’ but I cannot remember, taught me something about class. Chet, the store manager, called me one day and said I should come right over with an up-to-date statement of what Grants owed the paper. He immediately cut a check for the full amount. The next day, Grants was out of business.
Gary Collinsworth, at least I think his first name was Gary, was assistant manager. A Florida native, Gary was a tennis player, a really good tennis player. Probably 20 years my senior, he found time to teach me, a tennis novice, some of the fine points of the game. I can still picture his precise left-handed shot making a graceful movement around the court.
Then there’s Joe DeMuro. A Brooklyn native with the accent to prove it, Joe had lived in various parts of the country but saw something in Greater Pittston that, despite losing his job, which is what brought him here, made him want to remain. This is the place he wished to raise his children and turning to an old family recipe for making pizza is how he hoped to do it.
You know the rest of the story. DeMuro’s Pizza is still going strong on William Street, a hop and a skip from its original mid-1970s location.
I don’t know if seeing vacated Sears and Bon-Ton stores at Wyoming Valley Mall and another Bon-Ton at Midway Shopping Center in Wyoming will have a similar effect on me but I suspect they will. Especially Sears.
The “Greatest Generation,” of which my parents were members, could also be called the “Sears Generation.” My dad, who grew up on a family farm, often talked about ordering baby chicks from the Sears, or more correctly Sears Roebuck, catalog. Yes, they came through the mail. And when we were young, the only credit card my mom had was from Sears. With it she bought everything from washing machines to Easter bonnets.
My mom was such a fan of Sears Roebuck that she, unfortunately, believed a robot was a “roebuck.” That’s what she called the robot on the TV show “Lost in Space.” Look at that roebuck, she’d say. We didn’t bother to correct her. It would have cost us too many laughs.
Ironically, Sears began as a mail-order company, a precursor you might say to the very online shopping of today that has put stores like Sears and Kmart out of business.
As far as the history of Bon-Ton in these parts is concerned, I think a friend, upon hearing the news of its closing, said it best: “It took me until last year to stop calling it Pomeroy’s.”
I suspect he’s not the only one.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.