A bizarre shopping trip down memory lane in this N.J. Kmart’s final days | Opinion

The most surprising part of the news to me that the Avenel Kmart, one of just four left in the country, was closing, was that it was still open.

It was my local Kmart, but I couldn’t remember the last time I went in there before going this week, days before it was set to close for good leaving only one more in the state — just 3 left in all of the U.S.

I’d visit the Home Depot across the street, or drive past it on my way somewhere else, and be surprised that they hadn’t taken the signs down yet. How could this gray, un-updated store still be open as Kmarts across the country fell victim to closures?

But there it was, sitting in a strip mall with an indoor trampoline park and a Boston Market at the beginning of Route 35, quietly selling a hodgepodge of clothing, home goods, pet supplies, and pretty much anything you could need.

It’ll carry out that duty for two more days, allowing shoppers to pick over the last dredges of affordable goods, before it shutters permanently on Saturday.

The closing was announced by the store about a month ago, but interest was kicked up nationally after an Associated Press report on the demise of the chain. It was moderately full when I stopped by on Wednesday afternoon, and most other shoppers had pretty full carts.

Shoppers get bargins as Kmart in Avenel prepares to close its doors

Shoppers pick up last minute bargains at Kmart in Avenel. This Kmart will be closing on April 16 leaving only retail location in Westwood of Bergen County. Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

I can understand the wave of nostalgia its closing has inspired: my senior year of college, I lived a few blocks away from the Astor Place location in Manhattan, and news of that closure was much-discussed by me and my college roommate.

That location had everything a shopper could want. Nicki Minaj-branded moscato in twist-off bottles, t-shirts boasting about the Pope’s visit to Manhattan, seasonal decorations that absolutely did not correlate to the season it actually was, cashiers who just did not want anything to do with you.

It made no sense. We shopped there all the time.

Three days before the Avenel location closed, none of the things I remember so fondly from my college days were in the store (definitely not the grumpy cashiers– although there was a grumpy-looking goose inexplicably guarding the parking lot).

Granted, going out of business sales are always a little hit or miss; you have no idea what you’re going to find until you actually get into the store. But this one felt particularly weird.

The gift wrapping and card section looked like it was just a regular day in business. The front section of the store was overflowing with brightly colored summer clothes for baby and toddler girls, but not a single piece of clothing meant for a little boy. There were several University of Kentucky scarves and a box of University of Michigan stuffed animals (nothing for New Jersey area sports teams left, though). A display shelf was filled to the brim with bright blue Kmart employee t-shirts.

Shoppers get bargins as Kmart in Avenel prepares to close its doors

Shoppers pick up last minute bargains at Kmart in Avenel. This Kmart will be closing on April 16 leaving only retail location in Westwood of Bergen County. ÊÊTuesday, April 12, 2022. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

I still found some stuff to toss in my cart, including some bathing suits, a pair of sneakers I’d definitely seen at a Marshall’s before, crayons, and some Chex.

The Chex was not without some controversy. Another shopper stopped me when she saw I had a box in my cart, and chided me for not having checked the expiration date.

“Some expire May 2022, but some are March of 2023,” she said, looking disapprovingly at my cereal. “You really need to check that.”

But I was going to use it to make some trail mix which definitely would not last past the weekend, let alone next month?

“No honey, go get another box,” she insisted, and, well, who was I to argue? I got another box.

The things I got were all pretty good deals, but there were still plenty of things on shelves that weren’t really a steal at all. Some parts of the store were only 20% or 40% off, leaving the items the same price or more expensive than in stores that weren’t having closing doorbuster sales.

Racks of blankets were still about $17 after discounts, which is about what you’d spend on a similar blanket at HomeGoods. Exercise equipment was priced higher than what you’d find on Amazon, and plenty of gift wrapping items weren’t much better of a deal than at Target.

And I think that’s the crux of the issue: Kmart wasn’t really better than any other store. It had established its groove as being one of the first department stores to offer layaway, allowing people to purchase items over time instead of all at once. But then so did Walmart, and eventually credit cards became more ubiquitous, and then Kmart didn’t really have a place.

But none of that is a match for the nostalgia that an American big box retailer can inspire.

“Find anything good in there?” a man climbing out of a car as I was getting into mine asked, eyeing my large plastic shopping bag (another mainstay of New Jersey retail about to be gone).

“Eh,” I shrugged. “You know how these sales can be. Always hit or miss.”

“Yeah,” he allowed. “But you still have to go one last time.”

Kmart closes one of its last remaining NJ stores, only 3 U.S. locations remain

Kmart executives look over store advertisements in this file photo from 1976. (Staten Island Advance)Staten Island Advance

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Katie Kausch may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.