The iconic blue light specials are things of the distant past, but what Chris Christiansen really misses from the old Missoula Kmart is the lunch counter.
“You had a real nice restaurant back here when they opened,” the Stevensville man said Saturday as he sat at a table in the back of the store while wife Gail checked prices on pool repair kits.
“Then they had a little place up front where you could still buy sandwiches, but there was no place to sit. I’d come in here and get one and go out and eat it in the pickup sometimes while she shopped.”
The Christiansens, who are both in their 70s, lived in Missoula in 1973 when the opening of the new Kmart on the 93 Strip hailed the advent of national chain discount stores.
Coupled with the new Southgate Mall, it signaled the spread of retail businesses from the city’s core years before development on the Reserve Street corridor.
Sears Holding Corp. announced last week it’ll close the Missoula Kmart by the end of September. The corporation was the product of Kmart’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2003 and the subsequent acquisition of Sears. It remains one of North America’s largest retail chains, with a reported 4,000 stores and 250,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada.
This week’s word came as part of the latest wave of closure announcements nationwide from a company that reported a net loss of $3.14 billion in 2011.
In late December, Sears Holding revealed plans to close between 100 and 120 Kmart and Sears full-line stores, but none of the 10 in Montana. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in March, the company expanded its closure plans, saying it would shutter 60 more Kmarts and 53 Sears Hometown and Sears Hardware stores.
Missoula’s Kmart becomes the first casualty in Montana.
“We’re still wrapping our heads around it,” said Nina Morgan, who has worked at the Missoula store for 34 years.
She deferred all questions to a corporate referral number, which no one was answering Saturday afternoon.
“As far as employees, mum’s the word for us,” Morgan said.
Kmart’s closeout sale opened Friday to long lines at the checkout counters and what several people called the most crowded parking lot in years. Things seemed to be going smoother in the heat of Saturday afternoon.
“It’s really not that bad in there,” said Cory Bradshaw of Drummond as he left the store following a fruitless quest for a backpacking sleeping bag.
Most items were discounted by 20 percent. Some came expecting more.
“I thought I was going to find a big sale here today, but if I wait too long it’ll be all gone, and I need it today anyway,” Gail Christiansen said.
Nola and Dan Hunter were in high school at Missoula Hellgate when Kmart opened.
“I can remember Kmart used to be the place to go when we were kids,” Nola said.
Still, its demise isn’t surprising.
“I’ve seen the traffic over here compared to Target and Walmart or places like that,” she said. “I think it’s slowly been declining over the years, the number of shoppers they get here.”
The corporate office said the lease on the Missoula Kmart won’t be renewed, but gave no reason for the closure. A liquidation company was hired to oversee the final closeout.
Customers Saturday weren’t exactly waxing nostalgic about the store’s demise.
Some took the opportunity to poke at the Walmart down the street. It expanded last year to include food and grocery items.
“I like Kmart and Sears a whole lot better than I do Walmart,” Chris Christiansen said. “That chintzy outfit can afford to build that great big deal down there and they take their coffee shop out. When she’s shopping, I don’t have a place to sit any more.”
“I’ll be sorry it’s gone, but maybe they’ll decide to open up some place else,” Gail Christiansen said. “I’ve shopped at Kmart all my life. I never pass Kmart without going in. Same way with Goodwill.”