Blue Light Blackout
Seaside Kmart closes and everything must go.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
In all the chaos and doomsday fervor, some hooligan carved a swastika on Hillary Clinton’s forehead, gave her devil horns, and blacked out her eyeballs. Her book, Living History, and its disgraced cover, is mixed in with a pile of half-priced romance novels. But Shawn Bean leans against the doorframe at the back of the Kmart in Seaside, sipping a generic lemon-lime soda from a green can.
It’s almost lunchtime on the store’s final Thursday.
Usually Bean wears a red vest, but he’s in civilian garb today. Not a big guy, he works in security nevertheless, or as they say in the business, “loss prevention.” He used to work in the store café, then it became clear that the café was losing money and he says he got “released.”
He was since re-hired, and now he’s in loss prevention, even though these days there isn’t much left to prevent losing.
Spread out across a vast floor in front of him are empty and partially dismantled metal racks in the part of the store—which is most of it these days—that is cordoned off with yellow “CAUTION” tape.
Workers off in the distance clang around deconstructing shelves, tubes, steel arms, and dividers, piling them up and carting them around the floor. There is no store manager in charge any more. There’s a guy named Lee. He’s the liquidator.
In a few days, Bean will be released again from his duties at Kmart, or as one of the more blunt clerks up front put it, they’re all getting fired very soon.
After going bankrupt and closing 600 stores, Kmart has reorganized and its stock price has surged. It’s soared from $19 a share in 2003 to $90 today. According to recent reports, Wall Street is bullish and sees it blasting over $100 soon.
Part of the recovery has roots in the chain’s sale of 18 properties across the US—from Seaside to Tempe—for some $271 million to Home Depot. The mega-hardware store plans to move into the old Kmart as Shawn Bean plans to head north, to San Jose.
“I’m getting back together with my ex. We’ve been apart for a year,” he says.
To step into Kmart in late September, with four days until the final hours, is to enter a retail apocalypse.
For one thing, they sold the flat screen security monitor. It was marked down to $764.99. They sold the blue light—as in “Blue Light Special, aisle nine!”—for thirty bucks. It all must go.
But with a whole back of the store taped off so it can be taken apart, the front is a jumbled mess of what’s left.
Nothing is where it used to be, when Kmart was the smart place to pick up a bag of charcoal briquettes or some glue.
There are paint cans where the toothpaste and foot powder were. If you want to go buy a record or a cassette tape, forget it, that’s all gone. The sign for music is still up but you can’t get there. A rack of car batteries marked down 30 percent blocks the way.
All the mini-blinds are gone. Those were 30 percent off too.
Sure there are some chairs for the porch, and even though summer is over, there’s still one set of six bamboo torches for the patio. Regular price $4.99. You pay $3.74.
In between the paint and the car batteries are shelves of orphaned product. The kind of order one expects in retail America, the neatness and precision that soothes fragile minds and puffs up consumer confidence, has vanished completely.
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A partial inventory:
One bellows pump, for inflating rafts and such.
Three bowling balls: Purple, pink, black. $9.99.
A soiled, raccoon-sized panda bear toy.
A broken bird feeder. It’s not that bad, although there is a crack in the bottom big enough to let all the seed fall out.
A bottle of hand sanitizer for 99 cents.
A box of “On The Spot” Neutrogena acne treatment. It looks like someone bled on it a long time ago and the blood soaked in. There’s no price.
Next to it is a can of auto air conditioner refrigerant for $5.79.
Boxes of red signal flares. Marked down from $14.99 to $10.49.
Plenty of bug repellent.
Hooks for a closet.
Mainline cleaner (poison).
Air conditioner filters.
A Scooby-Do home aquarium net.
A big-time rack of trout bait. Lotsa bait.
One knee pad.
25 door hinges.
A “Little Noses” Stuffy Nose kit, which includes a nasal aspirator and saline spray. $3.99.
Three bucks worth of garlic butter.
A rotary saw blade: The Woodhawk.
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Over closer to the paint, there’s a faded display of Martha Stewart products, from back in the good old days, in the happier times of her career. In her photograph she’s smiling, not scowling, cheerfully folding towels in a sunny room with framed fern fronds on the walls. One must presume her line of towels was once sold from the racks beneath, but all that sits there now is a pair of false eyelashes.
A guy named John Sloan, 45, who grew up in Pacific Grove, has picked out a red sweatshirt over where they still have quite a few belts, jeans and handbags, as well as brassieres stout enough to deflect a bullet.
Sloan was at the beach down the street with his girlfriend and he got cold, came in, and found a cheap sweatshirt.
“This flips me out,” he says, marveling at the retail debris. “This place has been here since I was eight-years-old.”
At the store’s only remaining outpost, the service desk in the middle of the store, a man comes up with a plastic sippee cup in the shape of a polar bear. He asks the woman manning the counter for the “close-out” price.
He’s walked from some other part of store to find out what the cup is worth, and she scans the bar-code tag.
“One ninety-nine,” she replies.
Surprised at the relatively high price, he looks down incredulously at the bear cup and asks, “Really?”