Downtown department stores were a major draw for shoppers in Spokane’s first century. After the 1889 fire destroyed the entire downtown area, stores like The Crescent, the Palace, the Wonder, Whitehouse and others built bigger and grander stores to attract customers. In the 20th century, giants like J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Bon Marche and Sears arrived and built downtown.
Sears, Roebuck & Co., founded in 1892 by Richard Warren Sears and his partners as a mail-order watch and jewelry business, grew rapidly and by 1895 had diversified to a 532-page catalog with farm equipment, sporting goods, sewing machines, dolls and stoves.
Although they had mail-order counters in various locations, the company’s first retail store opened in a Chicago suburb in 1925. With the nation rapidly urbanizing, the business turned from purely mail-order, which was aimed at rural Americans, to retail stores.
As one of many new brick-and-mortar outlets, the first Spokane store opened in 1930 at 906 W. Main Ave. The bright, white modern building with a central tower in art deco style contrasted with the stodgy brick department stores that came before.
Over the decades, Sears led the business world in department store architecture, modernizing and mechanizing the shopping experience.
Just as Sears had followed urbanizing the 1930s, they followed the evolution of modern shopping malls. Sears opened at NorthTown mall in 1960 with more than twice the space of the downtown store.
After closing the downtown store, the Sears company sold the building to the Comstock Foundation, a charitable organization, at a reduced price. The foundation gave the building to the city to be used as the new downtown branch of the Spokane Public Library. The city and donors gave money to renovate the three stories.
Three decades on, the building was decried as dark, cramped and poorly ventilated. In 1990, Spokane patrons voted for a $28.8 million library bond to replace the old building and several other branches.
The old Sears was demolished in 1992 and the new downtown library opened in 1994 with an expansive view of Spokane Falls.
Library historian Nancy Compau wasn’t sorry to see the building go. “We have other fine examples of art deco architecture – City Ramp Garage, new City Hall (the old Montgomery Ward building) and the Fox Theater.”
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