'It's just a sad story': Sears historian laments end of era

Jerry Hancock didn't dream of Santa Claus as a child. He had the Sears catalogue.

Leafing through its glossy pages, he would pick his Christmas presents, mull over his school clothes and watch his dad pick out his Craftsmen tools.

"Sears was everything for us," he said.

But the department store doesn't just bring him nostalgia.

Over the past decade, it's been Hancock's scholarly pursuit — starting with a master's thesis and, eventually, the self-proclaimed title of a Sears historian.

Sears Canada's announcement that it would seek court approval to liquidate all of its remaining stores and assets has cast a pall on what many saw once as a cherished institution.

"Seeing what's happening in Canada — that's the death knell for the United States," Hancock said.

"It's almost like a part of Americana is dying. It's just sad to see it go the way that it is."

Sears scholar

In 2008, Hancock completed a master's thesis at Georgia State University.

His topic? The legacy of Sears in southern U.S. — and how the store became as synonymous with the South in the early 20th century as "salt pork, cornmeal and Baptists."

Since then, Hancock has been fascinated by all things Sears, from its early catalogues to the Ponce City Market, a former historic Sears site in Atlanta, Georgia.

He recently appeared on the popular Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast to discuss his fascination with the company.

"It was everything, particularly for a small town," said Hancock, who grew up in rural Georgia and collected his Sears orders at the store counter.

Nowadays, he teaches high school history and will sometimes point his students to Sears when discussing retail.

"The conversation of Walmart comes up and I say, 'Guys, you have no idea. Walmart today seems small.'"

'Shocked' if Sears survives

A few years ago, Hancock believed that Sears had tapped into a promising business idea.

The anchor Sears store at his local mall in a Georgia suburb had been entirely gutted and renovated.

The new store adopted the old retro logos with overhead awnings on the front.

Inside were wooden barrels filled with candies. The walls featured vintage black-and-white pictures of old Sears buildings.

"I got so excited when it happened," he said. "They're playing up this retro thing. This could go somewhere."

It never took off. Last year, he heard the store was closing down.

"I told my wife the other day, 'I would be shocked if Sears is still around in five years,'" he said.

"It's just a sad story."

With files from CBC's Daybreak North