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October 14, 2013

Oneonta campaigned to keep a Sears store downtown in 1978

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The Daily Star

---- — Downtown Oneonta as a retail hub was showing signs of distress in the late 1970s. A “SOS” message was being delivered by many retailers in October 1978. In this case, the message meant, “Save Our Sears.”

It was learned on Monday, Sept. 11, 1978, that the Sears-Roebuck store, then found at 220-24 Main St. would be pulling out of the city by Dec. 31.

“The basic problem is that we are dealing with a functionally obsolete facility,” a company spokesman told The Daily Star from a St. Davis, Pa., territorial office. The spokesman also said that this was not a sign that the company was experiencing financial problems, adding that Sears had tried several different merchandising schemes over the past few months to keep Oneonta’s store open, but “none of them worked.”

Sears had been a downtown shopping landmark at that location, having opened in their brand new building on Thursday, Nov. 14, 1940, according to a newspaper advertisement from that year.

Retailers and the general public in Oneonta decided not to simply accept the closing and move on.

According to the Star of Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1978, “Oneonta businessmen will woo Sears, Roebuck and Co. with flowers, petitions and song if that’s what it will take to keep the retail chain’s store in downtown Oneonta.” At a meeting held on Monday night no less than 62 business representatives and residents attended, to attempt to reverse Sears’ decision to close.  

Specific plans were delegated at the meeting headed by Community Development Director Joseph Bernier. Theodore Bard of Henderson’s clothing store was elected president; Harold deGraw of The Oneonta Theatre as vice president; Edward Somers of the Daily Star, secretary; and Roland Peacock III of National Commercial Bank, treasurer. The organization became known as the Save Our Sears Committee.

The Save Our Sears campaign got a fast start. A full-page ad in The Daily Star on Oct. 20 urged residents to fill out a coupon and mail it to the SOS Committee, as well as to write a letter to Edward Telling, the Chairman of the Board and CEO of Sears in Chicago.

A Sears, Roebuck and Co. executive within days assured Oneonta businessmen and city officials that the company is “very interested” in the city, but stopped short of saying what Sears would do when they close the store on Dec. 31. A catalog business in a much smaller store was among plans being considered.

The SOS committee didn’t give up.

“The Sears campaign committee has sent bouquets of flowers approximately every other day to Sears chairman Edward Telling in Chicago. Bard said he’s fairly sure they are arriving—lower level managers have let him know they find the situation embarrassing.”

The campaign climaxed on Thursday evening, Oct. 26, “Sears Day” in downtown Oneonta. Despite a steady downpour, 35 men and women stood outside the Sears store in solidarity that the store should remain open after Dec. 31.

A crowd gathered to hear speeches. Philip Bresee, of Bresee’s Department Store called Sears “a good competitor over the past 38 years” and urged the company to stay on Main Street.

Despite nearly 4,000 signatures collected on petitions, 300 coupons from the Star mailed to the committee and direct letters to Chicago, Sears officials remained quiet and the store, although set to close on Dec. 31, went on for only a short time later. Only the appliance department and catalog desk remained open, shown in a Star photo on Jan. 4, 1979.

It was reported on Friday, Jan. 19, 1979, that Joseph Ruffino, then owner of Ruffino’s Pizzeria in the Clinton Plaza, would buy the Sears building. There was a grand opening, known as the Main Street Mini Mall on Monday, June 18, 1979.

It had been hoped that Sears would open a catalog store in the city, but it was learned on Feb. 3, 1979 that a store would open in the next six to eight weeks in the Oneonta Plaza. A bank branch in the easternmost storefront had relocated to what was then the Jamesway Plaza, now a Springbrook property.

Sears returned to the city in May 1983. Thomas Talbot, then the store manager, said the store would locate in half of 61 South Main St., opening on May 14, as “The downtown area is an up-and-coming thing.” Despite a national shutdown of catalog stores in 1993, Sears stores in Oneonta and Norwich survived the cuts, remaining as locally owned retail stores.

This weekend: Where to locate a local Baptist Children’s Home turned into a two-year mystery beginning in 1923.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.