Apr. 7—The Chattanooga area’s oldest operating shoe store is preparing to close by this summer.
Jerry Sear, who has worked most of his 79 years at his Sear’s Shoe Store in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, is lacing up his inventory of thousands of shoes this spring and calling it quits, ending 81 years of retailing in the area by Sear and his father.
Sear shut down his Lafayette Road store in Fort Oglethorpe for three days this week to begin preparing a final liquidation sale that begins on Thursday as he readies to finally retire and head south.
Sear, who turns 80 on July 1, said his wife Sheila urged him to finally give up the business, and no one else in the family wanted to take over the store.
“I have two daughters in Atlanta — one of whom is married to a doctor and one whom is married to an aeronautical engineer — and they have no interest in keeping the store going and want my wife and I to move closer to where they live,” he said.
So within the next few months, Sear expects to sell his remaining shoes and related merchandise, put the store building up for sale and relocate to a new home in Atlanta along with his winter home near Boca Raton, Florida.
The store began under the ownership of Jerry Sear’s parents, Harry and Ray Sear, who previously opened a dry-goods store that sold both clothing and shoes on what was then known as Ninth Street, now M.L. King Boulevard, in downtown Chattanooga. Harry’s Place later relocated to where Jack’s Alley is now on Broad Street and moved to Main Street. It shifted to Lafayette, Georgia, for a few years before finally settling in Fort Oglethorpe in 1967.
“When I was a baby, my mother took me to the store in a baby buggy,” Jerry Sear recalled. “As I got older, I had jobs to do — I swept floors, cleaned windows, took out the garbage.”
Sear worked for his father until he died in 1990 and then took over the family store.
“I learned the business from my father and I’ve never had another job,” he said.
From his windowless office at the back of the store, Sear has bought and negotiated shoe sales with nearly all of the major shoe manufacturers. Over time, he has had to learn how to compete, both with major shoe retailers with more buying power and with the shoemakers themselves, who increasingly are selling their wares directly to consumers online.
The key to success, in Sear’s view, is hard work, long hours and customer service.
“Up until a few years ago, I usually worked 75 to 80 hours a week — whenever our store was open seven days a week,” Sear said. “You have to put the time in to be successful, especially with all of the competition for those of us still operating independent stores. I had to make a living and give my kids a good education, but I also enjoy the work.”
But Sear’s wife, Sheila, who watched over the home and family while her husband worked those long hours, has pushed him to first scale back the store hours and, ultimately, to sell the business, he said.
“I’ve been married 57 years, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t make it to 58 if I didn’t retire,” Sear said. “I’ve been putting it off for a long time, but the time has come.”
Through his hard work, Jerry Sear has kept his shoe business going through economic hard times, the pandemic and even the rerouting of traffic when the Highway 27 bypass was built around Fort Oglethorpe. In most years, the store is closed only a few days, but last April the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down for a month — the longest closing ever for the business.
But last year ended up with better sales as consumers came back after the shutdown, Sear said.
Sear’s store attracts an array of customers across the region lured by the wide selection, personalized service, competitive prices and unique brands, he said. But for all of his success, Sear said he never thought about opening other stores, which he feared might divert his attention and might not succeed.
What the Sear’s store may lack in presentation and location, it makes up in its inventory with more shoes in stock than any other store in the area. Shoe boxes are stacked to the ceiling inside, but most of the merchandise is in storage beyond what consumers see on the retail floor.
James Padgett, a U.S. Xpress truck driver who has shopped at Sear’s store for the past 15 years, said he likes the shoe selections available in stock and the unique character of the independent business.
“I just hate going to the mall,” Padgett said. “It always saved me time coming here to shop, and I’m going to miss this place.”
Chas Roesel, a Rossville resident who has shopped at Sear’s for the past five years, said it is the only local outlet he knows of that sells the Thorogood steel-toe boots he wears to work.
“It’s sad to see this close,” he said after learning of Sear’s plans to shut down.
Sear acknowledged the store name has sometimes been confusing to consumers, who call and think that Sears’s shoes is affiliated with Sears Roebuck & Co., once America’s largest retailer before it filed for bankruptcy in 2018.
But a visit to the crowded Fort Oglethorpe store with its narrow aisles and stacks of shoes would quickly tell consumers they were not in any ordinary mall or department store.
The Sear family name was taken on by Jerry’s father, Harry, who was originally named Harry Sir after his father, Solomon Sir. Harry changed the family name not for any retail advantage but to avoid some of the ridicule and guff he took from his commanders when he was serving in the U.S. military in World War II, who thought Harry Sir was mocking them with his name. To avoid confusion over the “Yes sir” responses to military commands, Harry changed the name to Sear.
After decades of serving thousands of area customers, the Sear’s shoe store in Fort Oglethorpe has acquired its own retail recognition by many. To promote the liquidation sale that begins Thursday, thousands of flyers were mailed out to current and former customers of the store.
Denver-based R.F.M Retail Consulting is handling the liquidation sale for Sear and will sell all of the merchandise and even the store fixtures.
“We handle a lot of store closings, but I’ve never seen one with so many shoes, especially in a store this size,” said Ervin Berley, who is overseeing the liquidation sale.
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.