Closing the doors on Monkey Wards

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January 14, 2001|By MIKE BURNS

THE CLOSING of Monkey Wards, officially Montgomery Ward until a recent last-gasp makeover made it Wards, sent me rummaging through my closets. The closets of my home and the closets holding more valuable artifacts, in my mind.

Indeed, the venerable retailer that invented mail-order, the mail-order catalog and even mass marketing had piled up an ample inventory in both places.

There's a rugged winter coat purchased a decade ago that still keeps me warm this time of year. A serviceable set of workshop tools that's at least a quarter-century old finds frequent use. Two easy chairs of more recent vintage still sit in the family room, despite dire threats from the home's chief interior decorator.

The power mower ("paramour" in Baltimorese) still works, though it mostly languishes in the basement when I can find someone with a tractor to cut the lawn and save me the sweaty summer labor. A comfortable flannel shirt that's seen better days, like its owner, still finds comfortable use around the house.

Then there's the bedroom TV that puts us to sleep each night and informs us of early news headlines each morning: It's a durable model from Wards.

These are not things of sentimental value, or of significant worth. They were bought for utility and have endured, now even beyond the life of the pioneer U.S. merchant that sold them.

They represented good value for us. We typically weren't disappointed when we shopped there. That's the kind of testimonial that's supposed to keep any retailer in business.

But we weren't steady, "loyal" customers of the store, and that's the problem.

The store charge card in my wallet was rarely used, only acquired to save money on a one-time sales promotion.

There were too many other stores, with their own better promotions, pricing and inventory that got our business. We moved on, even if Wards didn't.

Our buying habits apparently reflected those of the masses, and Wards became just another store that couldn't compete successfully in today's environment.

So you won't see any tears of regret from me about the passing of this American icon. Perhaps there's a sense of uneasiness that this taken-for-granted source of product reliability and familiar surroundings won't be around as a shopping option. But others have, and will, take its place.

Then I start to go through the list of material things acquired from Wards that no longer exist. And I get a bit puffy about the eyes, a little choked up as I swallow hard, a fleeting desperation of recovered memories.

The first backyard swing set for my oldest daughter came from Montgomery Ward. Too short for her legs to touch the ground while seated on the swing, barely able to climb up the ladder of the small slide, her cries of glee and "Push me, Push me!" come back to me over the years in a rush of happy tears.

I recall the blisters and scraped knuckles and untold hours spent on the garage floor putting the thing together from hundreds of parts in the huge cardboard container. A chore of frustration and expectation and love.

My first real bike came from Montgomery Ward. My father drove to the nearby city to get the thing and bring it home in a borrowed truck. The firm, of course, built its business and reputation on delivering goods to people in far-flung small towns. But that wasn't certain enough for my dad. (Or maybe he just wanted to have it assembled by someone else before taking delivery.)

And when I finally bought my first house, it came, by chance, with an old Wards refrigerator and stove left by the previous owner. They served us well for years until we moved.

What seems intensely curious to me about these pictures from the past is that I can recall even today where these items came from. There's no recollection of an unforgettable salesman or customer-service story, I can't tell you the actual brand name, except to guess that they carried the Ward or Signature label.

And that tells me that Montgomery Ward is going to live on in the minds of a lot of folks in this country, way past the 128 years it functioned as America's all-purpose store.

Traveling salesman Aaron Montgomery Ward had a remarkable idea of creating mail-order business in the 19th century. He invented the mail-order catalog, which became the "wish book" for generations of families, and brought the city to the rural outlands with efficient use of mail and rail. His firm created the indelible merchandising slogan "Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back."

Wards was slow to move from its Chicago mail order enterprise to retail stores, slow again to meet the burgeoning market in the postwar suburbs.

Eventually, it was too slow to meet the new challenges of specialty merchandisers and the cut-rate giants like Wal-Mart and Target and so on.

But Wards leaves behind a warehouse of memories -- even for the kids today who can't imagine why their parents and grandparents would ever shop there.

Because there's an enduring story of Santa's reindeer named Rudolph that was created by the store for its give-away coloring books six decades ago. And he'll be flying each Christmas Eve in song and story for many years to come.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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