Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 11, 2014

Sears has a long history in Ashland

Tim Preston
The Independent

ASHLAND — Sam Spears remembers going to work at the brand-new Sears building at the corner of 17th Street and Winchester Avenue in downtown Ashland shortly after the department store opened here nearly seven decades ago.

“We were only open one night a week and still managed to close for a half day on Wednesday at first. Of course, nothing like that was open at night back then. Then it went to every day and eventually Sunday,” said Spears, who advanced within the Sears organization and retired as a store manager in Columbus just a few years before his old friends at the downtown Ashland store moved local operations to what was then known as the Cedar Knoll Galleria, or today’s Kyova Mall.

In May, the Sears location at the Kyova Mall will be shutting its doors, bringing to an end 67 years of business in Boyd County. The Sears store at the Huntington Mall will remain open.

For many years, Spears said the multi-floor department store in downtown Ashland “was a mainstay of life” here.

“Everybody shopped at Sears then. Sears was a boon for the town and the people,” he said, detailing the contents of the downtown store floor by floor. Sears was downtown along with locally owned stores such as Parsons and Steckler’s, as well as JCPenney, which was later built on an adjacent lot.

Spears said there were many reasons why Sears became the place where everyone went to buy everything.

“I think the biggest reason was that slogan — ‘Satisfaction or your money back.’ They never questioned a return. That was what they taught us — make it right and exchange it with new,” he said. “And, they knew they could get what they wanted and the price was right. There were no credit cards then. You either had an account with Sears or you paid cash.”

The downtown department store also had an annex, as well as an automotive center “next to the Studebaker garage” on Carter Avenue, he said, noting the brand recognition of the Diehard batteries and other accessories sold there.

At the main store, Spears said the first floor was dedicated to men’s and women’s apparel and shoes, while the basement was filled with sporting goods, automotive accessories, plumbing, heating and cooling equipment, hardware and building materials. The second floor was primarily filled by the credit department, along with “home fashions,” including draperies and household goods. The third floor held furniture and carpeting; the fourth story housed general offices and training rooms; and “five and six was for stock,” he said, later adding the store’s advertising office was also on the fifth floor.

“If you count the basement, we had seven floors in that place. It was a pretty good journey if you went from bottom to top,” he said.

Spears estimated the store employed 100 to 120 full-time workers, with another 15 to 20 at the automotive center in addition to a small number of part-time employees. “There’s not many of them left from those first days. It’s down to just 10 or 11 of them,” he said, noting former Ashland Sears employee Aileen Caines continues to organize reunion lunches for the remaining Sears staff from their downtown days.

Caines, who worked in the Sears accounting department for 30 years and later was named a receiver during the transition from the downtown space to the mall in Cannonsburg, said the Ashland store opened in 1947 and attracted a loyal staff, with incentives including good wages and a profit-sharing plan.

“Sears was a good company and active in the community,” Caines recalled, adding the store “opened with a lot of departments and a lot of people.”

Even though Sears continues to have many dedicated customers, including herself, Caines said the company seems to have lost to low-cost competitors such as Walmart.

“I hate to see them leave. I think people still like Sears and want to buy from them, but there’s just too much competition,” she said.

Caines said early Sears customers were loyal to Sears after many years of ordering items through the store’s famous catalogs, and later retained those customers while earning new consumers with practices including the no-questions-asked exchange policy.

“They were good about returns. In fact, they got too good and that was almost their downfall,” she said.

Caines recalled the downtown store once housed a pair of Allstate insurance agents in the basement when the retail giant owned the insurance firm, and the building survived two fires. Coates said her family remains loyal to Sears, and theorized they have purchased every TV they’ve owned from Sears.

“This is a Sears house here,” she said, citing their televisions, cameras and appliances among their more recent Sears purchases.

Spears said he was able to enjoy many great bargains too, chuckling as he explained it was good to know when things would be going on sale or subject to deep discounts. His personal Sears purchases included a refrigerator from the store back in 1972, he said. “It’s still in use in my basement!”

TIM PRESTON can be reached at

tpreston@dailyindependent.com or

(606) 326-2651.