WASHINGTON -- Something's always a little wrong in a Kmart, which is as good a reason as any to love it. The beleaguered, bankrupt chain of 2,114 stores has routinely defied the attempts of those who would dress it up (Martha Stewart) or make it cooler (er, Jaclyn Smith). It always has a way of being a slightly frazzled place, whether you're in the Kmart at Carlisle Boulevard and Indian School Road in the middle of Albuquerque, N.M., or in the Kmart at the corner of West 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in the middle of Manhattan.
The best Kmart is the Kmart on the edge of nowhere, and most of them are.
Unlike the competition, a true Kmart is unashamed to be a Kmart. It has lipstick on its teeth and those days where it feels, you know, not-so-fresh? It smells of popcorn, new bicycle tires, a fresh package of crew socks, home perm kits. You should be hesitant to go in there, and then you go in anyhow, because sometimes you feel like being a Kmart person. (Sometimes you feel like being a Wal-Mart person, even though you fancy yourself a Target person. But we'll come back to that.)
This essential bipolar downside wasn't a dynamite business plan.
Tuesday night, after Kmart Corp. confessed that it had nearly sped off the same Deadman's Curve that has left the world without a Woolworth's or a Pan American Air Lines, and filed the largest bankruptcy protection plea in the history of retail, it was good to take a moment to stand in a Kmart -- the one at the intersection of Georgia and Connecticut avenues in suburban Silver Spring, Md., will do -- and feel sad. Kmart hopes to reorganize itself to a greater glory by 2003, but some stores may have to go (as many as 700, one analyst speculated). Please, Lord, not this one.
This Kmart is a perfect microcosm of the Kmart way, pulled in so many directions until chaos takes hold: messy, noisy, understandably and admirably human. Boxes were stacked everywhere, with Kmart's typically odd, cornucopial juxtapositions: 24-packs of Cottonelle, 'N Sync fruit chews, Windex, Pepsi.
The lines were long. English was the second language. Eddie Money sang "Take Me Home Tonight" over the sound system. There was plain and boring life being lived, and it was easy to imagine that your fellow Kmart shoppers had not, on the whole, spent the afternoon watching financial reports on CNBC.
Kmart's money woes are not our problem, yet there is personal investment in such institutions, especially when they go broke.
"Tell me," said someone who doesn't get the magnitude, "how an ironing board is different whether you get it at Wal-Mart or Target or Kmart."
It's different in about a thousand ways. It's about the small pieces of identity we cling to in a landscape of so much banality. We are but three similar and divided Americas: Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart.
An ironing board at Wal-Mart is destined to become a permanent piece of the family room decor. It will never come down, 'cept when comp'ny comes. Wal-Mart comes from the deepest heartland, the truest and most elementally American of whatever it's selling.
An ironing board at Target has been "designed" into something that wants to transcend ironing, perhaps by Michael Graves or some other known artiste. In a Target TV ad, a gorgeous Nordic blond model would pretend to windsurf on the Target ironing board behind stacks of Febreze fabric freshener. Target is a triumph of the graphic arts, fascistically clean, pure.
An ironing board at Kmart wants to be both of these. It wants to be the ironing board in the family room that never gets taken down, but it also has a selection of ironing board covers designed by Martha.
In any case, the thing to love about Kmart is that a small child is always about to knock over all of the ironing boards, in a great commotion of noise, followed by a spanking, the kind of spanking you didn't think got delivered in America anymore (because you've spent too much time in Target, and not enough time in Kmart), and it will be hours before anyone will come along and rearrange the ironing boards that wanted so badly to be chic.
Kmart could never be Target.
Kmart could never be Wal-Mart.
And apparently we could not fully love Kmart for what it is. Unknowingly, Kmart tapped into the idea that we are not all robots, that everything doesn't have to be perfect.
The analysts were particularly cruel as news of Kmart's bankruptcy filing and emergency $2 billion credit triage came to light. (Make that Blue Light. Nearly every TV station led with some twist on Attention, Kmart shoppers ...) To hear analysts tell it, the corporation that once dominated discount retail -- striking fear in the weakened hearts of Sears and Montgomery Ward and killing off the five-and-dime -- had seemingly done everything wrong from the minute Sebastian Kresge (he of the capital K) began peddling sundries at his first store in Detroit in 1899.
"If Kmart went away tomorrow, the only people who would care are existing Kmart shoppers who don't have access to a Target or Wal-Mart," Steven Roorda, a retail analyst at American Express, told Reuters.
Bruce Zirinsky, a restructuring and bankruptcy lawyer with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, told the Dow Jones News Service that Kmart may be beyond hope: "They may have waited too long to file. I'm not saying it's going to be fatal, but the worst thing that can happen is that customers come into stores and see big holes." He advocated closing hundreds of them right away, if not all of them.
The analysts all gave Kmart a "junk" stock rating, which had a poetic quality to it. (Kmart? Junk? Mais non! My plastic Powerpuff Girls swimming pool has lasted two summers now!) Emme Kozloff, a retail analyst at Bernstein Sanford, told Reuters that "long-term, we believe the possibility that Kmart will disappear has increased," presenting that even more startling and tantalizing reality:
The new urbanists love an empty Kmart. If it sits there long enough, and the parking lot cracks and crumbles and slowly gives way to the earth below, someone smart (read: not a developer) will figure out something really cool to do with it. All that space, with no walls, and lots of electricity.
Futurologists like scenarios where artists move in, and skateboarders, and computer hackers, and the kind of people who dig streams through the parking lots. In this way, hip retro suburbanites with money will be drawn to these artsy new enclaves; the SoHos of the 21st century begin in the dead inner-suburban Kmarts of the 20th century, and in 40 years you have people buying living space at premium prices.
It's a nice dream, and something to think about in the time-space warp of standing in the checkout line at Kmart. Here is where the people who came before us have abandoned tiny dreams. Here, they've ditched merchandise they no longer wanted or couldn't afford: Among the candy bars and Life Savers and Chiclets are disposable cameras, J. Lo CDs, Mach 3 razor blades, infant-size T-shirts, a belt, Gatorade, a "Get Well Soon" card, corduroy pants.
In Kmart you always get the feeling that these items will spend their purgatory here, until someone else wants them at the last minute. It's this random nature of the place that gave it the reputation it has.
It's why Dustin Hoffman's autistic "Rain Man" character would react violently to being taken there. "Kmart sucks," the Rain Man said.
It did, and with any providence, it will go on gloriously sucking.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.