The last thing I ever bought from Kmart was a Route 66 hooded sweatshirt, fleece lined everywhere, including the sleeves.

The Cadillac of hoodies, the Route 66. And it would have to be just that special to lure me into Auburn’s Kmart, a place I had generally avoided for years.

It is not that I did not LIKE Kmart, mind you. I did, and quite a lot. But the store had been such a magnificent place in my weird youth that I could not bear to see what had become of it over the decades.

The floors always seemed scuffed and dirty, no matter how recently they were cleaned. The lighting inside the store was yellow, drab and feeble, even with the sun shining through the windows. It was as if the years had been so hard on the Kmart franchise that the quality of light itself became sickly within its walls. 

The shelves were almost always fully stocked, yet the products that sat upon them seemed shabby and tired. Clothes drooped on hangers like wilted flowers. Even the grandest of toys appeared dusty and lackluster in that sour light. The once-magnificent electronics department was particularly dismal in its vain attempts to appear modern and exciting.

For me, every trip to Kmart felt like a journey into a morgue where the corpses still walked about, not knowing they were dead. The faces of other shoppers, even those who smiled, appeared weary and sad in that bland light — the faces of mourners at a funeral.

It pains me to say these things because in my childhood, Kmart was a glorious place, a modern shopping paradise that cast its long shadow over duller stores, like Zayre’s or that pitiful Mammoth Mart.

I remember when Kmart first came to Waterville. It had a bona fide pet section, with rodents running on wheels and fish darting to and fro in tanks that sparkled like the ocean. It had a full record section with LPs, 45s and even some cassette tapes — not like that stupid Mammoth Mart, with its 8-track nonsense.

There were hi-fi stereos, there was camping equipment galore and there was an entire section dedicated to bicycles and skateboards.

There was a little diner there, too, and it was at that diner that I discovered the joys of the chicken club sandwich for the very first time. I have chicken club sandwiches all the time, let me tell you, but none is as good as that Kmart special.

In those days, the latest, greatest marvels of technology made their debuts at Kmart. As kids, we would wander the aisles, enthralled by the wonders of the age: Stereos with dual cassette players for easy recording. Video cameras you could pick up and carry around. They even had a microphone with which you could throw your voice onto the radio, provided your radio was set to some obscure AM station way down at the bottom of the dial.

When Ronco introduced miracles of innovation like Mr. Microphone, they showcased them at Kmart and we young folk goggled at them with wide eyes and high hopes. We could not afford anything outside of the gumball machines, but we browsed anyway, and dreamed.

Kmart was one giant wish list, and it was also a playground for kids of a certain age.

We’d play hide-and-seek for hours in there, ultimately ending up in the women’s garment section, which offered the best hiding spots along with weird little thrills best not described.

We would skateboard up and down the aisles until frowning store security people chased us off.

We would throw footballs, try on funny hats and jack up the volume on all the stereos so the next shopper would get a jolt to the eardrums when he turned them on.

Don’t tsk tsk at me, hypocrite. You did it, too.

When there were days to fill and nothing much to do, Kmart was the place to go — unless it was Sunday, in which case the place to go was Laverdiere’s Super Drug.

Great fun, was Kmart, and on some occasions, it was also solace. The day my childhood dog died, I remember walking the mile or so to Kmart and then wandering the aisle for hours to distract myself from grief.

I made friends inside that store, and flirted with girls and ate all the chicken club sandwiches I could get my hands on. Kids roamed the store in packs like Viking marauders, inspiring scowls from the ardent Bluelight Special shoppers and giving fits to the security weenies in their goofy blue uniforms.

Maybe what happened to Kmart in the end was that all the kids who once loved it grew up and did not need it anymore.

Who wanted to go to Kmart when there was a Best Buy for electronics, a Home Depot for tools and a Walmart for everything else? Who wanted to journey into that grim, dying place when you could get what you were after so much cheaper and easier on Amazon?

The day I got my Route 66 hoodie (which I’m wearing now, in fact), I pulled into the Kmart parking lot and figured it was closed. There were only three or four cars parked there and the light at the windows was dim and dismal.

But nope, they were open. Just shabby and sad for the golden years so long gone.

After I grabbed my hoodie, I spent a few minutes walking the cracked and faded floors, trying to see if some of the old Kmart magic was anywhere to be found. Indeed, roaming that place was like stepping back in time, but without all the good things that once made it glorious.

Weary, I drew a sad sigh and moped over to what remained of the electronics department. There were not many stereos left on the shelves, but there were a few.

I cranked up the volume knobs on each of them, and what do you know about that? It made me feel a little better.


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