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Sears saying goodbye to Manchester after more than 80 years

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 23. 2018 10:08PM
Gerald and Doris Hemond of Manchester walk to their car after shopping at Sears at the Mall of New Hampshire on Thursday. Sears' Manchester and Salem stores are among 46 on the company's most recent list of closings. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER -- Doris Hemond recalled buying clothes for her kids when Sears was on Elm Street and then followed the retailer to its current location when the Mall of New Hampshire opened in 1977.

The mall store “was something new, something different,” the 80-something Mrs. Hemond said Thursday.

“We’re going to miss it,” said her husband, Gerald, in the Sears parking lot Thursday.

After more than 80 years in the city, Sears said Wednesday it will close the Manchester store in November, along with the store at the Mall at Rockingham Park in Salem.

“When the company chose to leave downtown for the Mall of New Hampshire, it was a direct indication of the way the retail industry was changing,” said John Clayton, executive director of the Manchester Historic Association, “and some 40 years later, this pending closure of its mall location is a perfect reflection of the latest trend in retail away from bricks and mortar.

“If there’s an irony in it, it’s that the Sears catalog — which was like a Bible in many homes — was kind of a forerunner to online shopping in that it allowed you to shop remotely without having to visit the store itself,” Clayton said.

Today, Sears has been buffeted by competition from both retail rivals and online sellers.

“I just don’t think Sears has adjusted as some of the other retailers have to the changes in consumer spending, and how they’re spending, and what they’re expecting when they get into the stores,” said John Sokul Jr., an attorney at Hinckley Allen’s real estate practice group in Manchester who focuses on the retail industry and shopping center redevelopment.

Sears has closed hundreds of stores and sold off some of its iconic brands in an effort to boost its bottom line.

“Their sales are down, their foot traffic is down,” Sokul said. “They’ve been selling assets for a while and this is just part of an ongoing thing for them. It’s not that surprising” that New Hampshire stores would be shuttered.

A spokesman for Simon Property Group, which owns the Manchester and Salem malls, referred questions to the owner of both Sears stores, Seritage, which didn’t respond to questions about what to expect next at those locations.

A pair of construction workers enjoy the winter sun as the Mall of New Hampshire nears completion in the winter of 1976-77. (UNION LEADER FILE)

Malls have been adopting more non-retail uses. Steeplegate Mall in Concord, for instance, is hosting a charter school at the former Bon-Ton men’s store.

Sears Holdings announced Wednesday it was closing 46 “unprofitable stores” in November with liquidation sales beginning as soon as Aug. 30.

Sears retail stores at malls in Concord, Nashua and Newington will stay open. 

Bob Sheehan, vice president of research for KeyPoint Partners in Burlington, Mass., a commercial real estate company, said he can see Nashua being the “best performer” among Sears’ Nashua, Manchester and Salem stores.

In Manchester, Sears operated at 652 Elm St. from the 1930s until 1953, when it moved to 1415 Elm St. and then to the mall in 1977, according to Clayton.

The current Manchester store, occupying nearly 140,000 square feet, generates about $348,000 in property taxes yearly, according to Robert Gagne, chairman of the city board of assessors.

The store’s closing won’t mean a hit for city coffers if it remains vacant during a scheduled city revaluation in a few years.

“It would pay the same rate as a similar but occupied property,” Gagne said.

Not all Manchester store employees took the news well.

“I’m not happy because I loved it here. I’m devastated,” said one employee, who didn’t want to be identified so as not to affect an upcoming job search.

Outside the Manchester store, the Morris family of Goffstown rattled off items they bought at Sears over the years, including a snowblower and Craftsman tools, dating back to the Elm Street store.

“Very sad, and now we have to go to Concord,” said Denise Morris, who was at the mall on Thursday for bags for her Sears vacuum cleaner. “We don’t go to Concord very often.”

Four decades after it moved, Sears’ Elm Street location remains ingrained in many minds, Clayton said. “Sears was such an iconic presence in downtown Manchester that people of a certain age still give directions by telling folks to ‘take a left by where Sears used to be.’”

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