Richard Byrne remembers the family trips to the Sears on Roosevelt Boulevard and the smell of soft pretzels and salted nuts on the ground level. The Byrnes would make the long walk from their Philadelphia home to browse through the first department store he had ever seen.
"The Sears experience was still a really powerful middle-class experience," said Byrne, now 52 and living in Washington. Upon hearing that Sears had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday after 125 years, Byrne said he "recalled what a formative part of my childhood" the store was.
He wasn't the only person with strong memories tied to the once fabled American retailer that has been crumbling for years under controversial CEO Eddie Lampert. Families recalled how the arrival of the Christmas catalog in the mail marked the beginning of the holiday season; former employees reminisced about decades spent working for a company they thought would never fail.
"What's happening to Sears is probably happening to a lot of other retailers, though probably not as severe," Olbrysh said. "People are shopping differently today."
In recent years, the once ubiquitous store, along with its corporate sibling Kmart, has failed to keep up in a fast-changing environment dominated by online seller Amazon.com and beleaguered by giants like Walmart. Sears customers have complained of a lack of merchandise and ill-kept stores. Closings have become commonplace while management seemed more interested in monetizing the real estate underneath the stores than revitalizing its wares.
Regina Kay Lucas, 83, of New Castle, Pa., still regularly meets with a group of former Sears employees at an Eat'n Park restaurant every other first Thursday of the month.
"Sears provided me with the job that I needed," Lucas said, referring to her part-time job with the retailer while also raising four sons. "If you spend 25 years and they provide for you a job when you're a mother and a wife, I can't say anything except I think it's sad."
The neo-Gothic Sears Tower at Adams Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard became a Philly landmark, employing people for Sears' regional administrative headquarters, a retail store, a mail-order service, and distribution for other stores. The last employees left in 1993, and when it was demolished in 1994, hundreds of people gathered to watch the building come down in seven seconds.
For Bernice Byrne, the 77-year-old mother of Richard Byrne, the company was personal. Her father worked at Sears and her parents would take her to the store. She remembered how her children would look through the Christmas catalog with the same excitement as her younger siblings did when they were kids.
"Sears went on for generations," Bernice Byrne said. "I went there so frequently with my parents, you can tell I just continued that as I married. Sears was the place for me to go. … It just had that family feeling."
Jerry Conway, 75, started as a clerk at Sears on Roosevelt Boulevard and eventually became a buyer for the catalog business. Though he worked at Sears in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and now lives in Largo, Fla., with his wife, he still runs into other former Sears employees.
"No matter where you went, you mentioned that you worked at Sears if you were in a group, someone else worked at Sears. It was a very strange phenomenon," he said. "We still do that even though we've been retired for many years."
His wife, Marie, 68, began her Sears career in the customer relations department, the same place where her mother worked. She lived in Northeast Philadelphia at the time, about a mile from the tower and the catalog order plant, where she worked for more than 22 years.
She started at Sears after high school because her mother told her: "Go there — it will be around forever."