News - Blue over Blue Light Specials

Mourning the memory of the once-mighty

Maybe I'm a little odd,

but I hate to see Kmart in such desperate straits.

Here in Atlanta, I grew up with Kmart. Sure, other discounters have come and gone. I certainly never waxed sentimental over Treasure Island, Richway or Zayre's. But, if the worst comes to Kmart, I will miss it.

Kmart, after all, is home to some serious retail icons. The bold yellow price tag. The flashing blue light. The big red "K" itself. And for me, it's also home to some powerful memories. Growing up in Chamblee in the 1970s, before I could walk, I was cruising the aisles of the Buford Highway store, riding shotgun in my parents' buggy.

Back then, Kmart was a weekend ritual, a family-time destination when the toil of the week or Saturday yard work was done. A trip to Kmart was particularly welcome in the summer, when the store's industrial-strength air-conditioning provided a refreshing respite from the heat. Time was, a kid could get a fine Friday evening's worth of entertainment at Kmart. Hiding in the clothing racks. Checking out the TVs. Slurping down Icees. Eating popcorn from those long skinny bags.

Kmart could get pretty exciting in those days. Just three simple words, blared over the store's intercom, made grown men and women scurry like excited children: "Attention Kmart shoppers." So what if the famed Blue Light Special was often an invitation to buy something you didn't need. It was fun.

Kmart had a distinctive smell, too, a not-unpleasant blend of fresh plastic and bubblegum, fried food and floor cleaner. It was the smell of something new.

My family would buy stuff at Kmart. Not exciting stuff so much, but necessary stuff — stuff to keep the household humming. Light bulbs and furnace filters, tire repair kits and toothpaste, Cokes and Planters Cheese Balls. Every once in a while, there would be something extra, like an LP record or a toy.

Ah, yes, the toys. There was an acute sense of anticipation double-timing it to the Kmart toy aisles, which were always next to sporting goods, near the soaring bike rack. As a kid, I spent many Friday nights with my mom's parents in Buckhead. Come Saturday morning, we were routinely found in the gold Buick, heading out to the Kmart at Broadview Plaza (now Lindbergh).

Funny what you remember. I have a vivid memory of my granddaddy standing in the Broadview Kmart, talking with a friend and marveling at how our new president, Ronald Reagan, had survived an assassin's bullet with uncommon grace and good humor. Six months later, we lost my grandfather to a heart attack.

When I was 10 or so, I'd phone Kmarts all over town looking for the latest Star Wars action figures. When something did turn up, I'd ask my dad or grandmother to "stop by" Kmart and help me spend my allowance.

All that, of course, was a long time ago — in a retail galaxy far, far away.

Since then, other stars have risen as Kmart's has fallen. The chain's stores didn't get any younger. Next to the competition, they were darker and messier and dirtier — and getting worse. Even with fewer people shopping, checkout lines grew painfully long. In fact, the only thing that moved slower than the checkout lines was the merchandise itself. Lots of stuff just sat there, literally collecting dust.

Kmart has struggled to turn things around in the last couple of years, adding lights, widening aisles, brightening in-store graphics and featuring promising new lines like Martha Stewart. I'm not a Wall Street analyst, but my gut tells me these changes were only about 10 years too late.

Strange as it may sound, I get a little excited walking into a big discounter even now. Only these days, that store is much more often than not Wal-Mart. I still drop by Kmart every now and then, not so much for the merchandise but for the memories. And maybe an Icee.


For pint-sized cowboys like Luke Boggs, no

Kmart trip was complete without a stationary

gallop on the brown mechanical horse outside.??

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