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Redmond store that ‘used to rule the world’ closing

Standing at the corner of what might someday be called NE Alhazen Street and Lumiere Avenue, customers leaving the Sears store in Redmond’s Overlake neighborhood carried bags of discounted clothes along with a few decades of retail memories.

The big Sears store on 148th Avenue NE is closing down July 15 after nearly 47 years of operation.

Eric, a Bellevue resident, says he’s been shopping there since he moved to the Northwest from Michigan 30 years ago.

“I think it’s sad because Sears used to rule the world,” he said. “So it’s just another change, and guys at the top eventually don’t stay at the top. So, yeah, it’s a change of the times.”

The Overlake Sears opened in November 1971 when it was pretty much the only “big box” retail store within miles. The massive store featured dozens of departments, including a bakery and its own café, plus showroom after showroom for famous Sears brands such as Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, and Toughskins jeans. A garden center and automotive service center adjoined the main building’s south side.

Though it seemed remote at the time, Overlake Park, as the area was then known, was a good bet for retail growth. An extension of State Route 520 known then as the Evergreen Freeway, would soon connect Overlake to Interstate 405, and to points west, including Seattle and Interstate 5, via the 1963 Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. The Eastside, including Redmond, Bellevue, and Kirkland, was fast becoming a booming and sprawling suburb, and Sears was one-stop shopping for all things domestic.

But times have changed, and so have all things shopping.

Sears recently closed stores in Shoreline, Centralia and Federal Way, and the Tacoma Mall location is set to close in September.

After this year’s round of closures, Sears will operate about 800 stores in the United States, down from a peak of 4,000 as recent as 2012.

According to a Sears website, 42 stores remain in operation in Washington, though most of these are what Sears calls “Hometown Stores,” which are operated as independent franchises. Traditional Sears stores remain in Everett, Kennewick, Lacey, Puyallup, Silverdale, Spokane, Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, Union Gap, and Vancouver.

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Sears’ presence in Seattle began shrinking significantly in 1997 when the large store on First Avenue South and Lander Street was remodeled to house Starbucks headquarters. That location had originally opened as a Sears catalog warehouse in 1913 before Sears got into the bricks-and-mortar department store business. The Seattle location was expanded and opened as something of a one-stop retail destination in May 1925. Sears departed for good from what’s now the Starbucks building in June 2014.

Also leaving Sears with a bag of clothes was Leah, a mom in her 30s who drove over from Seattle with her two young children.

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Leah said she shopped at the Overlake Sears when she was a kid. She said she was feeling the loss of the store, but she didn’t hesitate to take some responsibility for the place shutting down.

“I’m sad because it’s the only place that sells Land’s End and Dockers,” Leah said. “[But one of the reasons it’s closing is] because we shop on Amazon.”

But, she continued, there’s an important service that Amazon and other online retailers don’t offer, and Leah is going to miss the Overlake Sears.

“It is nice to have the convenience of just going in and trying on the clothes versus sending them back in the mail,” Leah said. “I have very particular kids who like things to fit right and I can’t do that online. I can only do that by going to the store.”

There’s little doubt that e-commerce decimated much of the 20th century retail model, but many believe that the recent closures of Sears locations are about more than just economics or changing habits.

Does Leah think Sears lost their “mojo”?

“Yes. They have not kept up with the styles, I believe,” she said. “They have good quality, but what they offer has not kept up with the times. And probably especially with the store remodeling. It just feels a little like a KMart.”

For Eric from Bellevue, the closure of the Overlake Sears is about basic economics and the realities of Eastside real estate.

“I see [the closing of the Overlake Sears] as a market correction, especially here with real estate so expensive,” he said. “There’s too much of everything. You’ve got all these malls and strip malls. Priorities are changing.”

“The land here is worth a lot,” Eric said. “Sears is not, but the land is worth a lot, especially with light rail and Microsoft just over there.”

Light rail is scheduled to begin operation along the 520 corridor in 2023, and the real estate is indeed valuable.

A company with offices in New York and California called Seritage now owns most of the land where Sears now stands. Seritage has been floating a plan to create a development called Overlake Plaza. It includes retail, nine-story office tower, nine-story hotel and residential, as well as some park-like spaces, and some new streets with new names, including NE Alhazen Street, Lumiere Avenue, and DaVinci Avenue.

Lisa Maher, spokesperson for the City of Redmond, said in an email that a demolition date for the old Sears store has not been set and that Seritage has not yet even applied for a demolition permit. It’s unclear if the building will remain empty once Sears closes down on Sunday.

The closure of the Overlake Sears means the loss of 68 jobs, and it’s unclear how many of those employees will be able to find new positions at other Sears locations. The company’s communications office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A public hearing regarding the Overlake Plaza project will take place July 17 at Redmond City Hall.

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