This Place Matters | Dale Harris & The Sears Key Shop

THE SMALLEST SIDE OF SEARS

by Dale Harris

SHOP NO. 1

In 1952, the Six Corners Sears consisted of only the original building (which had been opened in 1938). This stretched halfway along Cicero from Irving Park Road toward Cuyler. On the southeast corner of Cicero and Cuyler was the Sears Auto Center and behind that was a vinyl canopy covered walkway which led from the main Sears store to Cuyler.

In September of that year, on the East side of the end of the walkway, the Cole National Corp. constructed a small six-sided wooden shack which was to be the new Sears Key Shop. This building was small; someone standing inside of it could stretch out his arms and touch opposite sides of the building at the same time. It was far too small for customers to enter so they would stand outside to have their keys made through a window. The name of the original manager of this key shop is lost to history.

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By November of 1969 the key shop had a new manager, Earl Mosley, and I started to work for him as a part-time employee. The tiny shop had three key machines, two large revolving key blank racks and two 2” x 12” boards about 14” inches long that hung from the ceiling and held hundreds of precut Corbin skeleton keys. Six months later, I left to manage the Lawrence Ave. Sears Key Shop.

SHOP NO. 2

In 1972, Sears decided to expand its store by adding an annex to it and building a new Auto Center on the other side of Cuyler. This expanded the Sears building along Cicero all the way to Cuyler and therefore over the location of the key shop. This required that the key shop be replaced by a new one and that was built again by Cole National Corp. on the Southwest corner of Cuyler and Kilpatrick.

The building was supposed to be built as an 8’ x 12’ brick building with the front 12’ side facing the intersection. There were to be 2 doors on the opposing 8’ sides. The plan was for the size of the building to be measured on the inside but those plans were lost in translation somehow so it was built 8’ x 12” measured on the outside. Since this was not noticed until after the building was constructed, the only place to make up the lost space was the employee area. So, from the back of the front counter to the end of the key blank hooks mounted on the rear wall this ended up being only 21” by 80”, a very narrow space. This shop opened in May of 1973 and I was transferred to be its new manager.

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This was the now the highest grossing key shop in the company and it had on average 800 customers a week. It was so busy that customers had to take a number to be waited on and we usually had two employees working at the same time which was unheard of.

In 1974, I hired the first woman to work in a key shop, a high school student named Ellen McDonald. Up until then, most of the managers of the key shops were either retired locksmiths, retired hardware store folks, or former part-time key shop employees like me. These were always men who then hired high school and college-aged boys to work for them. Having Ellen work in my shop was so strange to people that folks from other shops would travel up to 20 miles from their shops just to see Ellen cut keys. Customers were also put off by this and if she was working with me, they would often ask that I make their keys instead of Ellen, and strangely it was female customers that were most likely to do this. I usually refused; Ellen was as qualified as anyone else to make keys.

SHOP NO. 3

In 1978, after I had been complaining for years about the size of the key shop, some company executives from the home office were in town and decided to drop by my shop to see for themselves. This was on a Friday a week before Thanksgiving that year. After looking things over, they said to me, “This is really small, but there is no way that we can justify the expense of making it larger even though it is doing so well.”

Two days later, on Sunday, I was sitting at home watching the Bears play when I received a call at around 2pm. My employee was on the line and told me a woman had driven through the front wall of the shop and that I needed to get there right away. When I arrived, I saw fire and police vehicles surrounding my shop and a tow truck pulling out the front of a Toyota from the inside of the shop. I was informed that the key shop was now structurally unsound and would need to be torn down.

On Monday, I called my regional manager who then called the home office. I was informed that my key shop would be rebuilt and that until then they would rent a construction office trailer to use as a key shop. Then my boss said to me, “You know if this had happened at 2:00 in the morning, and no one had gotten hurt, you would have been fired.” I am still not sure that he was joking.

Since everyone in the home office was busy with the Christmas selling season, they asked if I could come up with a plan for the new building and if I could find a contractor to build it. I agreed.

The trailer arrived on Wednesday and was placed next to the old shop. We were allowed to remove what we needed from the destroyed shop so that we could open up our trailer shop.

A trailer similar to the one used for the key shop

A trailer similar to the one used for the key shop

SHOP NO. 4

I designed the new shop to be twice the size of the old one—12’ x 16’—and in order to accommodate this in the same location, it was to now be square with the corner of Cuyler and Kilpatrick. Sears would not allow me to take away any of the parking spots near the shop.

After around eight months of construction, the new shop was ready and in July of 1979 we moved from the trailer into the new building. It was wonderful—the employee area was now 7’ x 7’ and if two people were working together, we could actually both inhale at the same time now.

Everything from the old shop fit into the new one. In addition, we also obtained an engraving machine and gifts to sell. Cole National had now changed its name to Things Remembered and gifts were now the major part of their sales, not keys. Since 1975, the company had also opened another shop inside Sears that mainly sold gifts and a few keys. I did the opposite of that—I sold mainly keys and a few gifts.

Unlike the old shop that had a flat front window, the one in the new shop was two feet deep with sliding glass doors on the inside. We used that as a display for the new gift merchandise. From the beginning of the year until November, we were always the #1 shop in the region, but after Thanksgiving, some other gift shops would overcome my lead in sale due to selling many Christmas gifts. However, since keys were more profitable, my shop generally won in profit for the entire year.

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SHOP NO. 5

In the summer of 1997, I was called into my Sears manager’s office and was informed of the plans to create what would be called the Market Place at Six Corners. He let me know that the key shop would have to be torn down, but that it would not happen until next year.

I immediately called the home office and my boss to pass this information on to them and they let me know that due to the profitability of my key shop, it would certainly be replaced. Over the next eight months, I would call to ask for updates only to be pawned off with a, “Don’t worry, we got this.” Finally, in April of 1998, I went into the Sears manager’s office and asked him to give me a concrete date that I would have to vacate the key shop. He told me that he did not know but it was probably still several months in the future. I told him that my company wasn’t making plans for the replacement of my key shop because Sear’s had not given them a date and they were putting it off. So, we agreed that May 15th (three weeks from then) would be the date.

When I called my home office to give them the news, there was panic in their voices. They insisted there as nothing that they could do in just three weeks, to which I responded that they had been apparently been working on plans for eight months. They confessed that they had done nothing and had not even talked to Sears about it so they would have to get back to me.

Three days later, they called me back with the bad news—nothing could be done and I would have to close the shop. I asked for their permission to talk to Sears and they consented, seeing as they had nothing to lose.

Fortunately, Sears itself was going through a huge transformation for the new shopping center and was chock full of construction workers and their managers. I brought up the key shop to them and they told me they had been instructed by Sears not to lose anything in the construction, which included the key shop. So, we sat down and they suggested that a storefront be carved in the south wall of the Auto Center which would then be converted into the key shop. Apparently, cost was not to be our issue—Since this was a move mandated by Sears, they would pay for the construction and all my company would have to do was fill the shop. In three days, the construction company and I had a plan for my company, which was subsequently approved.

Since the Sears plans required that my current shop be torn down several months before the new one would be ready, my company rented another trailer such as the one I had set up shop in previously. Once again, it was time to move.

SHOP NO. 6

In September of 1998, I was informed I could move into my new key shop—Key Shop #6. My company supported me by providing all new counters, key walls, and just about anything I asked for while the Sears construction team took care of installing everything. My employees and I planned our move out so perfectly that by the time Sears opened up in the morning, the brand, new key shop opened up on time too.

The new key shop was enormous; the main sales area was 28’ x 12’ with a 9’ x 9’ work room in the back. The front wall was all glass 10’ high and 28’ wide so there was an unobstructed view into the key shop from the parking lot. Instead of a large display window I now had five showcases. At this time, my company had also closed all the inside gift shops so the showcases were filled with locks for sale. My employees referred to the key shop as “The Palace of Keys”. We had five different types of key machines and almost 2,000 different key blanks. It was almost impossible to find a key we could not make.

Fun fact: the reason my old shop needed to be closed during this construction was so that it would no longer take up two parking spaces, however when they realigned the parking near my old shop used to be, they ended up with the same number of spaces. Additionally, to keep people from parking up against the new shop’s door, they put a concrete pad in front of it which was larger than the old shop. In effect, Sears spent $40,000 to lose two parking spots.

Over the course of a few years, things at Sears changed. As stated above, all of our shops inside of Sears had closed, leaving only the 45 outside key shops. This had happened because Sears decided to move all of our inside stores to areas with nearly no foot traffic, upon which the stores depended. My new key shop would be the last constructed at Sears.

During the 70s, my weekly customer count had declined from 800 to 500—the number of weekly customers I was receiving when this new shop opened up. Even so, the first two years of this new shop resulted in sales far beyond previous records. However, from this point on, sales and customer counts steadily declined. At one point, my boss—quite the motivator—told us that a lack of customers was not an excuse for a lack of sales.

SHOP NO. 6A

My Shops 2, 3, and 4 were in wonderful locations right outside the main entrance to Sears where most people who walked into Sears had to walk by it and thus, stopped by on impulse purchases. This new shop was off to the side within the Auto Center, far from pedestrian traffic. In the years following our opening, I would look outside the windows at the customers streaming in and out of Sears and wish that there were a way to get them to walk over to the key shop. Then, I had a thought.

In 1998, when I was closing the inside key shops, the one at 79th Street had an old abandoned outside key shop in the parking lot. I had the idea that if we took out the keys, machines, and a few counters from the inside shop, we could reopen the outside shop. That particular Sears and the key shop employees there were up for the idea, so we had taken the equipment from the inside shop to the outside shop instead of throwing them in the trash. Later, when I gave my company the idea, they passed, because it would take about $1,000 to implement. However, this meant that there was an entire key shop just sitting idly over there.

My new idea was to go to the 79th Street Sears, retrieve the equipment from there, and on a nice summer Saturday, to use it to open an outside key shop directly in front of my Sears store’s main entrance. If I could not get customers to come to me, I would go to them. It worked out much better than I had expected and the sales were great. Even though the main shop was also open, the new shop won hands down.

When I reported what I had done to my boss, he was far from happy since I had not gotten permission from him beforehand (even though I had not cost the company a dime—I retrieved the equipment using my brother’s trailer on my own time and I used a vacation day to make it happen). I asked him what he would have said if I had asked for permission and he said, “Of course I would have said ‘No’.”

I quickly replied, “That’s why I didn’t ask. When can I do it again.” To which I replied, “That’s why I didn’t ask. When can I do it again?” His first reaction was ‘Never’ but when I told him that I had almost tripled sales from a normal Saturday, he relented and gave me permission to do this once a month and only on Saturdays that Sears had big sales going on.

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Over the next couple of years the new shop just did better and better until my boss said that I could run my pop-up key shop whenever I damn well pleased. However, this was slightly inconvenient for me. The counters, merch, and equipment were stored across Cuyler in the second floor of the Auto Center on three pallets, which meant I had to find a pallet jack to move all of it to Sears to set up. The assembly took over an hour, as did disassembly at the end of the day, not to mention the heavy lifting required. None of this was paid work—the company would only pay me while the mobile shop was open to customers, not during setup or teardown.

SHOP NO. 6B

Due to the aforementioned complications, I spent the next two months building a single box on wheels that would hold everything needed for the mobile key shop. Since it was so compact, Sears allowed me to store it behind the loading dock of the main building. When I wanted to set it up, it only took me five minutes to go from the back room to waiting on customers outside. When it was too cold outside, Sears allowed me to open the mobile shop right inside the main Sears entrance, so I could be open year round.

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THE LAST CHAPTER

By 2014, things were really getting bad. Of the original 45 outside key shops, only 16 were still open nationwide. My customer count had gone from 500 per week in 1998 to 140 per week in 2014, even with the mobile shop. Almost all new cars required electronic keys and while we could make a few of them, the company refused to purchase the programmers required to make the rest so we were largely useless in that regard. In May of 2014, we received word that all the remaining shops would close. After a two month “Going Out of Business” sale, all our equipment, merchandise, and fixtures were to be trashed.

Three shop managers, two in Houston and myself, asked if we could purchase our key shops and continue running them. The company agreed. So, after negotiating a lease with Sears, acquiring a business license, employing a lawyer and accountant, and dotting endless i’s and an equal number of t’s, the company’s key shop closed on July 31st, 2014. My key shop opened up five days later on August 5th, 2014.

During this process, the strangest situation was that the old company lease required that photos of the vacated key shop had to be taken and sent to Sears to prove that it was now vacant. Therefore, I had to remove everything from the key shop and move it into my garage and then move everything back in once Sears had confirmed that my new lease was in effect.

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As the new owner, I could buy anything I wanted. The first thing I did was to purchase a programmer that would work for most car keys. I sold these keys for $60 and up, so sales increased quite a bit. My next investments were into other merchandise customers had asked for but my old company had refused to stock. Things were going well and the shop was once again making money.

In two years, it was time to renew my lease with Sears. I was still making a profit, but even with the new equipment and merchandise, my customer count had dropped to 120 per week. Across the street at Sears, my friends clued me in that things were even worse—national news about Sears was bleak. If I signed a new lease, it would require that I keep the shop open regardless of how much money I might be losing in the future. However, Sears was free to close at any time with no compensation for me. So, at 67 years old, I decided it was the right time for me to retire.

I did my best to find a buyer to take over the key shop, but no one wanted to take a chance with Sears being in the state that it was. I sent out letters to local locksmiths to purchase my assets. In the last month, I removed all the counters and fixtures and patched and painted the walls as per my lease. I sold off everything except the mobile key shop and wheeled that into the main building to keep open for the last week or so.

At 5pm on Saturday, July 30th, 2016, I emptied the contents of the mobile shop into my van and pushed the actual mobile shop across the street. I returned to lock up the shop for the last time and drove away.

EPILOGUE

About a year later, someone else reopens the key shop and in less than a year after that, on July 15th, 2018, Sears closes its store, in effect putting them out.

Sears declared bankruptcy on October 15th, 2018 and was sold off to Edward Lambert, its largest stockholder and former CEO, a sale which is approved on February 8th, 2019. Lambert plans to keep open about 400 Sears and Kmart stores out of 4000+ at its high point.

Things Remembered, my old company, declared bankruptcy on February 6th, 2019 and was acquired by Enesco which plans to keep open about 170 shops out of 900 stores at its peak. When Things Remembered still operated gift and key shops inside of Sears stores, as well as Wards and Venture, the total shop count (leased and mall stores) was about 2,000.

I am enjoying being retired just fine. I still have dreams about the key shop and there are times when I really miss it.