“No matter what department you worked in, Sears paid women fairly.”— Doris Sossaman
T he other day, I read an article in Wired about Amazon’s “fulfillment centers.” These giant warehouses are like real-life Santa’s workshops: When you click “buy,” all the elves start scurrying. At 1.2 million square feet, they also happen to be some of the biggest buildings in the country, stuffed to the gills with flash drives and dog treats and socket wrenches.
In this article, the author opines about how breathtakingly new it is — all the chutes and conveyor belts and scurrying elves. But of course, it isn’t new. A then-powerful retailer called Sears had it all figured out 100 years ago. As a matter of fact, Sears was bigger.
Take Sears Crosstown in Memphis. When the last additions were completed in 1965, this retail store and distribution hub clocked in at a whopping 1.5 million square feet — bigger than the Chrysler Building in New York, and about 25 percent bigger than the biggest Amazon fulfillment center. Every year, it served 750,000 customers in a seven-state region, and it could handle 45,000 catalog orders in a single day — on average, a new order every two seconds. And this was before computers.
Amazon, eat your heart out.
Of course, Sears was different from Amazon in one important way: popular perception. From the beginning, Amazon’s fulfillment centers have been dogged by accusations of hazardous working conditions and low pay (“wage slavery,” in the words of one writer).
In the popular imagination, then, Amazon’s fulfillment centers are less like Santa’s workshop, more like Santa’s sweatshop.
Meanwhile, at Sears Crosstown, the workers were certainly sweating. From the time the warehouse opened in 1927 until it closed in 1987, there was no AC. Even in summer, the only relief was cross-ventilation from window fans.
Imagine trying to get a twenty-something to work in those conditions today. You’d get laughed at, or sued. But strangely enough, when I talk to former Sears employees, they never complain about the heat. Instead, they all come back to one thing: gratitude. To a person, they are grateful to have worked at Sears Crosstown, to have been a part of that family.
Take Doris Sossaman, age 81, who worked in payroll from 1958 to 1967.
“We were all there,” says Sossaman. “We were hungry; it was the best place in town for a woman to work. Sears, no matter what department you worked in, paid women fairly. And back then that was important, because women didn’t have much to say in business.”
As you may know, Sears Crosstown is currently in the process of being redeveloped. Over the next two years, a building that was all about packing and shipping consumer goods will become a place for moving people — moving them forward into better jobs, better health, and better education. They’re calling it Crosstown Concourse, and it’s going to be a “vertical urban village” — essentially, all the elements of a vibrant neighborhood, stacked vertically in a single building.
In practice, that means restaurants and shops, offices and art galleries, apartments, clinics, and schools. It means Memphis mainstays like St. Jude, Christian Brothers, and the Church Health Center, who are moving part or all of their operations into the building. Most of all, it will require the participation and support of the surrounding neighborhood and the whole city — without whom the building would still be a ruin.
It won’t be easy. To understand the scale of the ambition, you only have to stand in front of the building and look up. Before it’s finished, the redevelopment of Crosstown Concourse will have consumed seven years and $200 million. Over 40 million pounds of concrete will have been removed from the building, and over 2 million pounds of new steel will have been installed. That’s two pounds for every person in Shelby County.
It’s an ambitious undertaking — on par with the mind-boggling logistics of the old Sears. But Doris Sossaman thinks they can do it. She says she’s rooting for Crosstown Concourse.
“When they finish up, this neighborhood will come alive,” says Sossaman. “We’ll see new businesses pick up. We’ll see homes built and homes rebuilt. Young people are already moving in with great ideas. It’s a really exciting time.”
John Klyce Minervini works in digital media at Crosstown Concourse. He is the founding editor of the Memphis food website T he Fork , and he writes a weekly column for the M emphis Flyer .