Does Anybody Love K-Mart?
A retail giant nears extinction, and exits New Jersey
Back in August, while we were at my parents’ house in New Jersey for a week, I saw a news story announcing the impending closure of the Westwood, New Jersey K-Mart. Five or 10 years ago, that would barely have registered as a story to me. It was happening all the time, after all. But now it does register, because the Westwood location was one of only three K-Mart stores left in the continental United States.
Even from my parents’ house, Westwood is a hike, up into a very suburban but very dense landscape—the worst kind of place to drive around. Bergen County, where Westwood is located, has close to one million people, but no major cities: a reminder that sprawl causes traffic, not density per se.
But I had a story and needed my photos. So I asked around. Dad: There’s a reason we live in Flemington, not up there. It’s like Long Island! One friend in the area: Buying a house, life is busy. Another friend not in the area: Not braving North Jersey traffic on my only day off to snap a few pictures of an old store.
Can’t blame them.
I even thought of waking up at five one morning and just trekking up there straight from Fairfax County, but even I have a limit. And then, I got a funny feeling when Luca Gattoni-Celli, head of the Northern Virginia YIMBY group and a friend, texted me a photo of a Mediterranean restaurant he was at somewhere in Jersey. The picture looked like a lot of the D.C. suburbs—a little bit timeworn and crowded, but full of energy.
Somehow I thought it might be near Westwood. I held my breath as I mapped it, and somehow it was. Seven minutes by car (and that’s the only way). “That restaurant looks great,” I texted back. “Say, you weren’t planning to hit the Westwood K-Mart seven minutes away after lunch, were you?”
It turned out he was looking for somewhere to walk around with the kids, but—neither of us knew this—Bergen County is one of the last places that still has blue laws, and so malls and department stores are closed on Sunday, which this day happened to be. I don’t know if the kids got to run around in a store, but I got my pictures. So these aren’t mine. But I had to have them, somehow. “Daddy, why are you taking pictures of an empty K-Mart?” “Addison is going to write a great newsletter about it.” Maybe.
As you can see, it was a rainy, overcast day—perfect weather for photographing a semi-abandoned strip plaza. I feel a sense of comfort when I’m out in that kind of weather capturing dreary scenes like this. It’s actually much more uncanny to walk around an abandoned store on a beautiful day. The contrast sort of emphasizes the feeling of abandonment and dereliction.
I could go on. But if you’ve seen one beige boxy 1970s K-Mart, you’ve seen them all. In a way, documenting this particular one doesn’t matter. It’s only notable because it happens to have been in the final three. But it’s interesting. Why, for example, did this one make it so long when scores of identical stores were closed over the last 10 or 20 years, in very similar sorts of older suburbs? Bergen County is quite affluent, too, and K-Mart is the least of the big-box discount chains.
Maybe it’s because the closest Walmart is half an hour away from Westwood and Google directs you to take the Garden State Parkway. The closest Target is only five miles away, but in this very crowded suburban setting, traffic is such that it’s about 15 minutes away. So the K-Mart probably survived because of the land-use pattern: smaller lots and stores in these earlier suburbs, meaning fewer large, modern stores nearby; and terrible traffic, magnifying the distances to those larger stores. That’s my best guess, anyway.
For some reason, the store was full of adirondack chairs. I’d have liked to see the interior, but really, what difference does it make?
I’ll be writing another, longer piece about K-Mart, and its pretty astonishing decline from a retail giant to basically nothing. There’s still a K-Mart website, but most of the merchandise is sold by someone else. And there are still some stores in the Virgin Islands and Guam, which have survived, again, mostly because there aren’t many other options.
Whatever the remaining stores actually stock must basically be web merchandise, and not the other way around. I don’t really understand how a chain can survive with so few locations, since the underlying logistics would have broken by that point. It’s a strange economic story.
It’s often said that America doesn’t have history, or ruins. I disagree. It was in America that the neighborhood five-and-dime store evolved into the massive big-box superstore. And it was in America that we overbuilt retail and ended up with these semi- or fully-abandoned strip plazas everywhere. These are our ruins. As I wrote once, “the lone and level asphalt stretches far away.”
Is there anything in store for these landscapes? Other than long-term abandonment or demolition? Sure, you can put medical offices or churches in them, or flea markets. But in another 50 or 100 years, what story will we tell about them? Anything? As an urbanist, I think more about questions like this than I do about actual cities. Far more of America looks like Bergen County—or any number of less populous, less affluent places in the same pattern—than it looks like New York City.
The near extinction of a retail chain that typified that kind of place is a curiosity, but it’s also the making of history.
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