Businesses Come and Go

Businesses come and go. It is a fact of life, but when I saw in the news that Sears is having financial problems and closing some of their stores, I thought, “Oh no! Please do not close the Frisco store.” It was one of the first to open in Frisco’s Stonebriar Centre, and the faithful old name, “Sears,” has been with us for more than 100 years. At one time, it was the world’s largest retailer. That thought triggered a bunch of memories. Old-timers remember when the name was “Sears, Roebuck and Company,” and their annual catalogue was a fixture in most every home. From that big book, we could order most anything, including toys, clothes, furnishings, hardware and even a house. Yes, a house! They shipped the materials and built, on your lot, a two-bedroom frame house. A few were even built here in Frisco.  

Then, there was our favorite, the Sears’ Christmas catalogue, better known as “The Wish Book.” It was there we did our Christmas shopping. Children went through and marked all the toys and other things we hoped Santa would bring.

However, the Sears catalogue had other important uses. When Christmas was over, the catalogues were retired to outhouses all over the country (at least in the rural South) where they served two purposes. First, they made good reading material while we “rested,” and, second, the pages made good toilet paper (at least better than newspaper). Remember, this was before real toilet paper made its way to this part of the country. I recall what one of my buddies said when his family finally got actual toilet paper. He said, “We got some toilet paper, and it is a lot better than the pages out of a Sears catalogue. It is non-skid and puncture proof!” That is a true statement from a country boy.

Let’s look back a few years to see some of the many other businesses that have “bit the dust,” some from obsolescence, some for financial reasons and some replaced by new technology. 

How many of you remember Montgomery Ward®, once one of Sears’ big competitors? Us kids called them “Monkey Ward.” They, too, put out a big catalogue every year, so we were able to do some comparison shopping. But, some of our favorite businesses were the “Five and Dime” stores like F.W. Woolworth and S.H. Kress & Co. Both started in the late 1800s and were popular when nickels and dimes actually had some purchasing power — a time when men worked on the farm for only a dollar a day. It is no wonder “dime stores” are no more. Perhaps, they have been reborn as today’s “dollar stores.”

What about the once successful Toys “R” Us®? In retrospect, it is easy to see why they faded away. Today’s toys are not dolls, tin soldiers and chemistry sets like my generation played with. They are the much more sophisticated electronic “toys” and games today’s children are playing with. So, no more Toys “R” Us.

In the adult world, Kodak, the once successful corporation, folded because of advances in the world of photography. With digital cameras on every cellphone, we no longer have to buy film, load our box cameras, take a few pictures, send the exposed film to get it developed and wait a week for the post office to deliver our precious pictures. In the past, you carefully placed the pictures in an album for safe keeping. Today, many of our pictures are neatly stored in cameras and computers, some, good or bad, fated to be shared with the world on Facebook.

The world of communication has seen more than its share of disappearing businesses. Take Western Union® for example. They were “big” as late as the 1940s. During World War II, we relied on telegrams to get news to servicemen in a hurry. That is how I learned of the birth of my first child in 1943. Today, just a cellphone call with a picture of the baby would do the trick. Better yet, with Skype or FaceTime, you could witness the birth as it happens (if that is allowed). 

In recent times, cellphones have had a tremendous impact on the way we communicate with one another. They have practically eliminated the need for such things as phone booths and have reduced the need for landlines. I call them “walkie-talkies” because, wherever you go, on the street or in stores, people are on their phones walking and talking. The little phones, from flip-tops to the latest models, now practically a necessity, can be a blessing or an embarrassment, especially in church. Phones are a blessing when you use them to read scripture, but not when they ring during the service.

Radios furnished much of our home entertainment before television took over. I remember the names Atwater Kent, Crosley and Philco once being common brands of home radios. You old-timers may remember spending your evenings listening to the shows “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Shadow” and “Amos and Andy.” For housewives, there were afternoon “soap operas” such as “One Man’s Family,” “General Hospital” and “Stella Dallas.” Children looked forward to listening to late afternoon shows such as “Dick Tracy” and “Little Orphan Annie.” Today, I seldom listen to a radio, except for the one in our car. 

The automobile industry has suffered a great number of closings during its lifetime. I cannot begin to name all the cars that once were on the road and no longer exist, but I remember Studebaker, Nash, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Willis, Whippet, Franklin, Edsel, Tucker, Maxwell and the little English Ford.  

As long as the world turns, businesses will continue to fail and new ones will start. The word “automation” once brought a chill to the spines of workers when machinery began to replace manual labor on assembly lines. Mechanical harvesting equipment like cotton pickers replaced back-breaking work. Some pessimists predicted that unemployment would skyrocket and our economy would suffer, but the opposite has happened. Unemployment numbers today are lower, production is up and the economy is booming.  

What can we expect in the future? Some are prophesying that today’s rapidly-expanding technology will bring more earth-shaking changes to the business world. They predict electric cars will soon replace most of our gasoline-powered vehicles, affecting many businesses. One such prophet says, “A failed electric motor can be replaced while you drink a cup of coffee, so no long waits in repair shops. We will need fewer service stations. Parking meters will also be electric meters. Homes and buildings with rooftop panels will produce more electricity than they consume, thereby reducing the need for coal and natural gas-fired generating plants. Self-driving cars will replace taxis and will reduce the need to own a car. With car ownership down, parking lots will be turned into parks and all this will leave our cities with much cleaner air.”

The good news is that technology is generating new businesses as fast as old ones are disappearing, so, as some wise person said, “Welcome to tomorrow — it actually arrived a few years ago.”B