Sears store in White Plains, N.Y., watches its destiny decided in courthouse 2 blocks away




 

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.-The Sears store sits modestly at the corner of two nondescript streets in White Plains, New York, pinning its hopes on the foot traffic sauntering through the Galleria, a local mall that twins the flailing anchor with Macy's at the other end.

But unlike every other Sears that has studded the American landscape for decades, this three-story concrete hulk in Westchester County is two blocks from the U.S. bankruptcy court that will decide the fate of the storied retail giant.

From its perch in a quintessential American suburb, this Sears is close enough to see its own funeral or resurrection. The 24 giant tiles atop its main entrance at South Lexington Avenue and, yes, Main Street are stained with vertical lines of rust, which look oddly like dried tears.

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The company has struggled to hang on and now awaits word on whether the revised proposal to save the company, submitted Wednesday by ESL Investments, Sears Holdings chairman and largest investor Eddie Lampert's hedge fund, is deemed acceptable by the debtors. That would save the company from liquidation. Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears is scheduled to hold an auction on Monday for the company's assets.

"The presence of a federal bankruptcy court near Sears has an irony," said Roger Panetta, visiting professor of history at Fordham University, and author of Westchester: The American Suburb. "The city has been a barometer for the nature of the suburbs. I don't feel either pride or dismay."

The most recent court meeting in White Plains - a city previously best known to Sears shoppers as the site of one of Gen. George Washington's Revolutionary War defeats, the Battle of White Plains - was a conference status on Tuesday. Most seats were taken; if bankruptcy law had a Super Bowl, this is it.

The 227,316-square-foot Sears has been at that location since 2003, replacing a J.C. Penney, according to the Galleria's marketing and business development manager Ty Peterson.

Where Sears was for decades before that move now houses a Walmart. The 126-year-old retailer has been criticized for failing to embrace the shift to digital retail and refresh its merchandise. The lackluster online shopping presence and fusty product lines kept younger shoppers away; meanwhile, Walmart, founded in Arkansas in 1962, made that shift.

Both chains saw their futures blossoming in the suburbs - bedroom communities as American as the cars that once upon a time shoppers drove to get there. For years, White Plains was frozen in this amber - a municipality easily commutable to the New York City, predominantly white, with the serenity of a mid- to late 20th-century middle class. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, wife of former First Son John Kennedy Jr., are from there.

Today, White Plains has close to 60,00 residents with a median income of $87,550 with healthy-sized Hispanic and African-American communities, according to the U.S. Census. What was once a sleepy 'burb now gleams with high-rise office towers and condo buildings. Another mall, The Westchester, is less than a mile away; its more upscale tenants include Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co. and Tesla.

Lucy Medina has watched Sears tumble. Not an employee of Sears, she's a hairdresser in the salon in the White Plains store. She questioned what the future will bring if the chain is liquidated and all its locations close.

"It used to be busier," said the Carmel, New York, resident, herself a Sears shopper. "It's bad to have this problem. I don't know (what will happen) if Sears goes from White Plains. There'll be nothing. Westchester is for rich people."

Medina has no plan if the store closes and, with it, the salon.

"People have to work," she said. "I'm crossing my fingers."

On the block between the Sears and the federal courthouse is a White Plains municipal building with a patinaed statue depicting various public servants, including a robed judge, out in front. Cross another street and the federal courthouse presides over that corner - a spiffy white facade, four columns holding up a rounded roof, plenty of windows. That's home to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

The first-floor courtroom of U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Drain is tucked into a corner of the first floor, a wood and leather cocoon that looks out onto South Lexington. Drain, whose judicial career began in lower Manhattan, has heard other major corporate bankruptcy cases, including American icons Reader's Digest and Twinkies maker Hostess Brands.

"Just as we have markers marking White Plains and various battles, we should have a marker for Sears. This event is of enough consequence that it should memorialized," said Panetta, the history professor. "It's part of White Plains history and part of American retail history."

For Paulo Diaz, Sears was less important. He was in the store looking for a sink drain with his step-father Thursday morning, but last shopped at Sears around Christmas. He bought jeans, but it's his age group - millennials - who gets scapegoated for the decline of brick-and-mortar retail. People his age, 35, and younger like shopping online, not walking past a Charlotte Russe and a dental office or an Old Navy and a dollar store to physically hunt for what they want to buy.

"It's sad because a lot of people used to come to Sears to do their shopping," the unemployed Port Chester, New York, resident said.

Amy Cohen, a 24-year resident of White Plains, was looking for patio furniture and a microwave oven, clad in the reindeer scarf and gloves set she'd bought there last week for $10.93. (Her personal best is a navy blue long-sleeve fleece for 50 cents.)

"I like Sears; I come for the deals," the 72-year-old construction manager said. "I don't like giving up on things I associate with family, growing up."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sears store in White Plains, N.Y., watches its destiny decided in courthouse 2 blocks away

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