Over the weekend, I read a story about the closure of one of America’s last remaining K-Mart stores. There are now only three left from a high of over 2,400 worldwide in 1994. If you remember them–especially if you were around before that–you probably remember the store’s unmistakable look and discount/dime store smell. Maybe you even remember the lunch counter. A dime store on steroids might be the best way to put it and it was indeed actually born out of the old Kresge chain.
Every time I think of K-Mart, I think of baseball cards and sporting goods. Growing up in a small town in Northeastern Wisconsin, the nearest store was about 20 minutes away and I used to constantly bug my parents to go there. Usually, about every third or fourth Tuesday or Friday night, my dad would cave in, especially in the spring if plants were on sale, we were short on furnace filters, oil for the lawnmower or something else dads always needed. Sometimes we’d pick up some submarine sandwiches from that old school lunch counter to take home. It was a concept leftover from the store’s dime store heritage.
Entering through the double doors, past the gumball and tiny football helmet machines to the back of the store I’d go, straight to the big bin of MLB player endorsed baseball gloves, bats, footballs and basketballs back in what was a very respectable sporting goods department. I bought my Richie Allen glove there and later on, a Sal Bando model I still have. One particular evening though, I had to stop and buy something before I was completely inside the store.
On an early spring evening in 1974, grade school me walked in and saw a vending machine like the one pictured below with the new Topps Baseball cards showing on the front. Stick a coin into the slot, push it forward and back and five cards would slide out from a slot. I couldn’t grab my nickel fast enough.
The top card sent a jolt through my young brain. It was clearly a Topps card but it didn’t look like any of the others. The maker of MLB’s cards was already proclaiming Hank Aaron as the “All-Time Home Run King” even though the season hadn’t quite started. That special horizontally designed card–and the succeeding baseball card retrospective of Aaron’s career on cards 2-6– enticed me to collect that set with even more fervor than usual.
As I advanced into my teenage years, I recall walking through the Halloween candy aisle. Next to the Reese’s and Three Musketeers were bags full of packs of trading cards. Football, hockey, Star Wars. Full, regular packs of cards that Topps apparently couldn’t sell and gave them to a repack firm who offered parents an alternative to handing out sugary sweets on October 31.
They were usually priced at around $1.99 –less than what you’d pay if buying from a box so I snared a couple. “Fun Bags” were a staple for a few years and sell for serious money today. I just wished I’d sought them out a bit later when they held packs of 1980-81 basketball (yes, the perforated cards that gave us the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rookie were not a smash hit upon release).
Going to K-Mart meant a chance to buy cards in a format we didn’t see in our local grocery store. In the late 70s, I remember walking toward the register and seeing those wooden bins full of Topps Baseball three packs or “tray packs.” K-Mart was famous for selling them and if you lucked out, they were sometimes on sale–even cheaper than the discounted price that was intended. I remember seeing stacks of 1980 trays in that bin for 29 cents each on closeout. There were 192 packs to a case and who knows how many came through our local store over a five or six-year period.
In 1980, there were three-card baseball packs with a special K-Mart header that served as some sort of promotional giveaway at some K-Mart stores. You needed a lot of those little cello packs to build a complete set with all of the double prints that were part of the set.
K-Mart, Topps and MLB were partners on a regular basis. In 1982, they teemed up to celebrate K-Mart’s 20th anniversary with a boxed set featuring former MVPs. Topps used pictures of the players’ baseball cards from that season to produce the sets, which were usually on sale for less than 2 bucks.
Come to find out they must have turned on the printing and packaging machines and just let them run, though. After an initial flurry of sales to excited collectors looking for something new, the sets turned into some sort of ahead of their time junk wax product. K-Mart had a seemingly endless supply and at one point, they were selling the sets for…are you ready…a nickel. And still, customers left them sitting on shelves in droves.
Today, they’re plentiful and still pretty cheap.
Undeterred by the overrun, K-Mart did a 25th anniversary set five years later with cards featuring the stars of each decade since K-Mart had opened in 1962 (the first store, by the way, was located in a suburb of Detroit). Boxed sets were a huge deal in the 80s and K-Mart kept at it, with a 1988 “Memorable Moments” set, a 1989 “Dream Team” set and a 1990 “Superstars” product.
But buying card at K-Mart was more than just a Topps run for me. In the winter of 1972-73 they were the home to the Icee Bear basketball cards. Buy one of those flavored ice drinks and you’d get a big postcard-sized picture of an NBA star. There were plenty of leftovers (who in the northern half of the country was buying an Icee in the middle of winter?) and most wound up in the hands of enterprising dealers a few years later.
It’s not a “rare” set but it’s jammed with Hall of Famers and supplies of higher grade examples have dried up a bit over the last 20 years. Interest in basketball has pushed prices up.
In 1978, I’d heard about a new football card disc set being produced for Slim Jim–the beef jerky brand. I’d never had beef jerky, but since the only way you could get them was to buy the boxes that held two of the cardboard discs, I figured it would be a worthwhile challenge and commenced convincing my dad to join me in tasting the culinary curiosity–and to use his creative powers to find more. He did and we eventually completed the 1978 Slim Jim Football disc set in complete box form (minus the jerky, of course).
Most of the time, we bought them at that same K-Mart store where they weren’t quite as pricey. Some of my boxes still have the K-Mart price sticker on them.
In the 1990s, long past the time of tray packs and Fun Bags, K-Mart was one of the places where you could snare unopened boxes and I remember going through a huge variety of them back in the middle of the decade near my in-laws’ home in Ohio. You could find things like 1993 and ’94 OPC Baseball and probably 20 or 25 other products from every sport on the shelf at any one time. Today’s flippers would have absolutely lost their minds.
K-Mart was once one of the largest retail chains on the planet, known for carrying just about anything you could imagine and their constant “flashing blue light specials” that sent shoppers racing to the shortest of short term deals. They apparently didn’t keep up with Americans’ desire to have even their discount store experience feel a little more classy, though, and the downturn began in earnest as the new century revealed itself. Such are the ways of business, I guess.
The blue lights are gone and so are the cards, but I’ll always tip my cap to the big red K that provided a big wooden bin full of great collecting memories.