As the recently laid-off veteran Sears salesman carefully navigated his way along a sub-zero, snowy and slippery Public Square in Watertown for his breakfast destination of the Crystal Restaurant about a week ago, he was stopped by a stranger.
A few minutes later, Charles C. Cassel, over ham, eggs, toast and coffee, said those things happen often. The man, he said, wanted to shake his hand.
“He wished me good luck in my forced retirement,” Charles said. “I’ve been able to, I think, make a difference in some peoples’ lives through sales.”
Charles, 73, worked for Sears Roebuck and Co. in Watertown for 51 years. It was a rewarding and satisfying way of life for him.
Sears, a retail institution and an American icon, declared bankruptcy on Oct. 15 and said that it would be closing an additional 142 stores. The store at Salmon Run Mall was shuttered on Jan. 20, its empty shell becoming a growing symbol of brick and mortar stores crumbling under the pressure of e-commerce giants.
Through our talk, Charles, of West Flower Avenue, recalled the glory days of Sears in Watertown, things he believes may have led to its downfall and his hopes of soon returning to a sales job.
He’s managed departments at Sears, but he prefers sales. His “forced retirement” was from selling appliances.
“I like being at where the rubber meets the road,” Charles said. “It’s a good feeling to match a customer up with the merchandise that’s going to meet their needs and to have a happy customer. I’ve only been away from it for a short period of time, but already I miss it. I like that customer contact. It’s fun to see success.”
His retail career began in the mid-1960s when he was a bagger at IGA supermarket, on Watertown’s Arsenal Street, directly across the street from the former downtown Watertown Sears store, which moved its location to Salmon Run Mall in 1986.
One day while he was bagging, a customer, Phillip F. Kennedy, manager of the local Sears store, struck up a conversation. Mr. Kennedy, a Boston native and a Marine veteran of World War II, suggested that Charles stop over for an interview.
“And that’s when everything began,” Charles said. “Like anybody approaching a new situation, you’re always hesitant. I said to myself, ‘If I don’t like what I’m doing, I’ll simply leave.’ Well, I haven’t left for the past 51 years.”
His first job at Sears was in the display department.
“We had windows in the store,” Charles said. “We did the visual displays.”
He also printed signs, using a hand press, for various store departments.
In the mid-1980s, while working days, Charles attended Jefferson Community College, taking four years of night classes to earn an associate’s degree in business administration. He earned a 3.8 average.
“I was kind of proud of myself,” he said.
the sensation of sears
The downtown Watertown Sears store was at the intersection of Arsenal and Massey streets. People could easily walk to it. When one entered the store, it was a feast for the senses. There was the delightful smell of popcorn, available for customers. Near the back-door entrance was a candy counter, which children eagerly flocked to. The latest in seasonal clothing, tools, home appliances and other gleaming products sat in waiting for adults to discover. If one wanted a breather from it all, a luncheonette awaited.
“The whole store was uniquely situated,” Charles said. “It had three different floors. A family could come in the back door of the store. Say it was a mother and father with three children. At the back door, they would say goodbye to each other. The mother would go to the main floor for fashions and clothing. Dad would go downstairs to plumbing, heating and hardware. Depending on the ages of the children, they would go with mom or dad.”
There was also an Allstate insurance outlet at the store. In 1993, Sears spun off that insurance company which it founded in 1931.
“It was a one-stop shop,” Charles said. “It was an experience.”
He thinks Sears’s Watertown store lost part of its identity when it moved to Salmon Run Mall.
“You weren’t going to Sears. You were going to the mall,” he said.
Following his stint in display, Charles went to work in the front office at the local Sears, where he wrote purchase orders. He talked about certain orders longingly — reflecting on treasured direct and personal business relationships.
“You’ve got to understand that everything at that time was counted manually and the books were counted manually,” Charles said. “Purchase orders went right from the store to the manufacturer.”
Tru Stich Footwear in Malone was one of his favorite customers.
“It was always nice to write a purchase order, give it to a company close by and you can recognize and get, for example, their moccasins — a well-made product.”
His front office skills attracted the attention of his bosses.
“Somebody apparently noticed that the lad had a little personality,” Charles said. “They decided maybe I’d be a good candidate for running the paint department.”
After that: “They could see I could navigate different age groups and personalities, so then they made me manager of the shoe department.”
He later moved on to manage the home improvement department.
“It had everything from chain link fence to kitchen cabinets,” he said.
Charles then got a job in the lawn and garden department as a salesman and then switched to selling appliances, which he did for about two decades until a few weeks ago.
He was asked what makes a good salesman.
“You’ve got to listen to the customer,” Charles said. “It’s very critical.”
So is asking lots of questions, he said.
“In today’s world, we have people come into our stores and they’re carrying a smart phone, reading reviews of the product or looking at pricing,” Charles said. “They’re doing so many things. When I get a chance to talk to that customer, the thing that I probably will always do is ask them a great number of questions because I want to get something that works well for them.”
It’s all about defining needs and a budget, he said, such as a narrowing down choices involved in selecting a refrigerator, ranging from its width to “does the handle go on the right or the left?”
“So, by defining needs and peoples’ budgets, I can come up with a solution,” Charles said. “By defining what your needs are, I can better answer the question of what’s needed.”
A particularly rewarding part of his job was the returning customer.
“I’ve had guys who came along and say, ‘That tractor you sold me 20 years ago is still going good,’” Charles said. “I could sell 10 or 15 tractors a week. But for that person, who spent $1,500 on that tractor, that’s an important event. They’re concerned that I know that they’re happy with the product.”
notes and letters
During his 50th anniversary at Sears, Charles received several cards and letters from customers he’s helped over the years, thanking him for heeding their needs and wishing him well. He brought one of those cards with him to breakfast — from Peter C. and Karen L. Brierton of Watertown — containing a few paragraphs of hand-written appreciation. Charles couldn’t recall the couple and likely wouldn’t have recognized them if they had just then walked into the Crystal and sat next to him.
But for Mrs. Brierton, Charles is unforgettable.
“He’s a special man,” Mrs. Brierton said in a phone interview. “It seems like Charles was a fixture there. Every time you went into the appliance department or to the TVs or whatever, he was always there. If you asked Charles a question, he’d get you an answer.”
Among appliances the Briertons purchased from Charles was a washing machine for their home on County Route 63.
“When we bought our current house, it had a Maytag washing machine in it,” Mrs. Brierton said. “I kept calling the repairman. It wasn’t working right. My husband went to Sears, spoke to Charles, and said, ‘Charlie, just sell us a washing machine that we’re not going to have any problems with.’ It’s been going on now for eight or nine years. We haven’t had one lick of trouble.”
Mrs. Brierton said she was dispirited when she heard the local Sears store was going out of business and that Charles would be out of a job.
“He’s a super person, a wonderful sales person and just a wonderful human being,” Mrs. Brierton said. “He’s been doing it for so long. To just take that away from somebody is not healthy. If he was leaving on his own accord, I would find that OK. But to have the company close and to leave that man with no direction … my heart broke for him when I heard.”
The closing leaves Charles concerned for his former coworkers, particularly the people who were in “mid-career.”
“It’s not easy to put, say 15 to 18 years into a company and then have it do what Sears did,” Charles said. “I feel very bad for them and so sorry for the customers all of us serviced over the years. They were always depending on Sears. And Sears is not going to be there.”
As for him, Charles was “greatly bothered” by the closing.
“I’m very upset about it,” he said. “But in the end, there’s nothing I can do. Rather than being the driver of the bus, I’m simply a passenger of where this thing has gone.”
But Charles is now ready to steer toward new horizons. A course is set for a return to the sales floor.
“I’m trying to give myself a month or so of readjustment,” he said. “But I don’t want to wait too long. I’ll try to rejoin the ranks of retail sales. I’m pretty good with the electronics world, I’m computer savvy so I think that maybe somebody would want to have a salesman that spend the last 51 years getting the rough edges ground down.”
He paused and added, “Only time will tell which direction I take.”
He was asked if time, in the form of his age, would work against him — something experienced by job-seekers decades younger than him.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s more what you present. I’ve always been on time and 90 percent of anything is being there. That’s not a problem, and I’ve been very blessed with good health. So hopefully I would find an employer that would appreciate what I bring to the table.”
Charles, divorced, has a son, daughter-in-law and three granddaughters who live in the Central New York area. For hobbies, he likes to garden at his home and at his small cottage along the St. Lawrence River.
He approaches gardening the same way as his career.
“I grow tomatoes and simple things that I take pride in,” he said. “I’m not a complex gardener.”
With thoughts of perhaps heading back out into the cold after our interview and his breakfast, he added, “I’m looking forward to having this winter over.”
A few days later, Charles stopped by the offices of the Times to chat for a few minutes. Like a good salesman, he shared a copy of a glowing letter of recommendation from his former boss at Sears, applauding the ace staffer. It was an unseasonably warm day — a bargain for February. Charles, sharp-looking in a snappy blue cardigan, was confident as he stepped back out into the invigorating air. The snow was melting. And Charles, frozen out by Sears but sustaining on sunny aspirations, was eager to accumulate so many more days of sales.
“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column featured in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday edition. Write to Chris Brock at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY, 13601.