Two Kmart employees reflect on 43 years working at big-box store shuttered Sunday

NOW CLOSED

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 3/3/19

A yellow sign displaying "LAST 4 DAYS!" in blue was the first thing you saw upon entering Sumter's Kmart on Broad Street on Thursday, tape holding the placard in place.

Today, that number has receded to one.

In the subsequence from Sears …

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Two Kmart employees reflect on 43 years working at big-box store shuttered Sunday

NOW CLOSED

Posted

A yellow sign displaying "LAST 4 DAYS!" in blue was the first thing you saw upon entering Sumter's Kmart on Broad Street on Thursday, tape holding the placard in place.

Today, that number has receded to one.

In the subsequence from Sears Holding Corp. filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2018, the sliding doors at the big-box retail department store will stay shut for good after today. It was one of 80 Kmart and Sears stores - the only one in South Carolina - slated to close by the end of the month, adding to the list of 182 other locations already on the chopping block.

"I was in high school. It was my first job," said Kathy Kelly, a Sumterite who worked her way up to office manager and human resources director.

Kmart opened on Broad Street on Nov. 5, 1975, and Kelly joined the team on Oct. 29, 1975. After today, she'll start searching for the second job she's ever had.

She is one of seven full-time staff members left. The store has been averaging about 70 employees, with more than 30 additional during the holidays.

She got married in 1980 and helped put two kids in college on her Kmart paychecks.

Kelly said she could feel a decline in customers through the years. The freights started getting lighter. When announcements started coming out that stores were closing, she kept hoping it wouldn't be here.

She said she loves HR and loves working at Kmart. She and her coworkers became family. They used to play bingo every Friday with residents who live in senior apartments nearby, many of whom were regulars at the store.

Now, sun shined through the barren garden center on Thursday, walls showing ghosts of posters, probably having recently come down for the first time since being put up.

Kelly said she thinks she is done with retail. She could never top this experience. Not that she's had time to truly think about it, but she said she is interested in getting an office job, maybe for the state or government.

One of the other full-timers said she does still probably want to do retail but does not like the idea of having to start back at the bottom of the pecking order, working nights and weekends.

Denese Lamer also put 43 years into Kmart. She started 20 days earlier than Kelly, getting out of an industry job she hated at the age of 21.

"I've been doing this too long to have a desk job," she said.

Lamer has worked an array of jobs at 1144 Broad St. Like an executive chef who starts as a line cook or bus boy, Lumel knows the ins and outs of the big-box. She was hired to work in the auto garage section, becoming the department's clerk and bookkeeper. When the garage closed, she went to sporting goods, which also spanned auto, toys and DIY, for seven months.

Then she transitioned to the health and beauty department. She stayed there for 20 years. From pricing, to inventory to layout to ordering to making the newspaper ads, she "did everything for that department."

"HBA was my pride and joy," she said. "I finally found a job I like."

Lamer bought her own home with Kmart paychecks. A couple cars, nice ones.

"It was a good family," she said of the team she worked with for 43 years. She wanted to get to 50.

Through all the changes, all the hats worn with different job titles, different duties, all the computer improvements, the layouts to make room for the shampoo flavor of the week, getting paid in cash then a check then direct deposit, the aqua vests then red vests then T-shirt and blue vest, Lamer and Kelly said it didn't feel different yet. It hadn't hit them as of Thursday. They were still busy buzzing around the store, making sure everything was in order and marked correctly, as they have been since high school.

As more and more items went home with customers, priced down and with no returns, Lamer said the only thing she has noticed is the store is colder. And it echoes.