Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crosstown Sears - Meditations on Two Wheels

My job takes me all over the Mid-South. As much as I enjoy getting to explore the region of the country where I live, the amount of time I spend looking through a windshield definitely gets old. When I'm not at work I tend to stick pretty close to Midtown, since I've already had my share of driving time. And I love to relax by getting on a bicycle and getting some wind on my face.

On Saturday night my wife and I attended the second annual Bikesplotation event at the old Crosstown Sears building. The event, hosted by Live From Memphis, featured a showing of 17  bicycle-related short independent films on the roof of the decaying building's parking garage.

Out of all the films we saw, my hands-down favorite was one called Meditations on Two Wheels by local filmmaker Robert Rowan. It is narrated by Rowan over footage he shot during a seven-day period he spent exploring Memphis on a bicycle. The engaging nine-minute short covers a lot of the same nonfood-related topics that are recurring themes on this blog and needs to be seen by a far wider audience than the group of people who watched it Saturday night.

Luckily the film is available on Youtube. Watch it. Then get other people to watch it.

The setting for the event was a perfect match for the film. The event was held in cooperation with Crosstown Arts, an organization working to bring the giant, crumbling building back to life.

Bicyclists were able to peddle through the garage to its roof while people on foot used the stairs. While the garage was added decades later, the main building was constructed in 1927. Besides an enormous amount of retail space, the 1.4-million-square-foot building also a major distribution center for the Sears catalog during a period when it was a defining force for American consumers. My dad spent over two decades repairing electronics for Sears and I have vague memories of visiting the building with my parents when I was a child before it was completely closed in 1989.

During my early to mid 20s I spent three years renting a duplex just a few blocks east of the Crosstown Sears building on Stonewall. I always enjoyed seeing the art deco building, which looks like a set piece from the first Tim Burton Batman movie, in the skyline. Today it's just a short walk or bike ride down the V&E Greenline away from my current home.

I'd love to see the majestic building put back to use, but it is a victim of its own sprawling size. It would cost a fortune to renovate 1.4 million square feet in such rough condition and it is hard to imagine any project that would actually require such an enormous amount of space. All the real architectural value of the building is in its towering front section, but demolition work to remove a large portion of the boxy rear warehouse area of the building to make it a more manageable size would still require a huge amount of money.

No one can blame the empty building on Memphis. The struggling Sears company has been a victim of epic mismanagement for decades. The management book What the CEO Wants You to Know mentions a 1975 speech by the CEO of Sears at the Kellogg School of Business where he told the class that retail in the United States was "a mature business and a zero-growth industry." At that time Wal-Mart was operating in just eight Southern states with total sales of only $340.3 million. Then in 1993 Sears discontinued its iconic big catalog and largely abandoned the mail-order business to focus on brick and mortar stores, just two years before a guy named Jeff Bezos started selling stuff from a website called Amazon.com.

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