By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Once upon a time, K-Mart in West Orange was the place for eclectic shoppers craving a Nathan’s hot dog chased by a blue raspberry Icee. More than once brain freeze stopped me cold in the greeting card aisle after I had slurped the frozen cotton candy with a bit too much vigor.
On Sunday-afternoon family outings to the big box, we would hike the wide aisles like some people trek trails at Eagle Rock reservation, enveloped by our surroundings. We’d test the comfortability of the yard furniture, spritz and sniff in the perfume area, or lean over the jewelry counter to get a closer look at the necklace-earring box sets bedazzled with our birthstones. My favorite part of the store was the lower level that was roughly divided into 10 areas: non-perishable foods, sporting goods, homewares, appliances, electronics, automotive parts, bedding, towels, children’s toys and cleaning supplies. Aside from the eye-popping merchandise mash-up, K-Mart had a nifty two-by-two escalator — one lane each way for people and another for shopping carts — two going up, and two going down.
Even though I loved the place, apparently not enough other people did. K-Mart went bust, closing its doors in 2019. In those final days, I made a final visit. Signs in the window screamed “everything must go.” I had no intention of buying anything — though Joe Boxer pajama bottoms, a hula hoop and a 3-pack of Crest toothpaste ended up in my basket anyway. All I wanted to do was race my shopping cart down the escalator one last time.
K-Mart may have been down, but it was not out. Witness a Covid-inspired K-omeback. Essex County commandeered the store, turning the empty box into a vaccination site, replacing “final sale” signs in the window with the majestic Essex County Seal. People who never set foot in the store now spend hours frantically refreshing the county’s vaccine registration page, hoping to snag an appointment at the site. Friends who’ve succeeded in breaking through describe a magical place.
The moment they stepped through the doors, volunteers greeted them warmly and guided them to a registration desk where they presented their golden tickets — emails confirming their vaccination appointments. Ushered to a different waiting area — a part of the store that once housed the gardening department — volunteers served them champagne in crystal flutes and passed caviar on toast on silver trays, or so I imagined. One thing for certain, as my friends moved closer to the small rooms with curtain walls, where life-saving nurses awaited them with a life-saving vaccine — seeds of hope, relief, and joy began to sprout. Soon they would be protected from a deadly virus, they’d be able to hug the people they love, and they’d return to lives left behind over a year ago. For them, K-Mart has become a temple, taking on spiritual significance. People enter and are transformed.
For so many the pandemic has left us feeling like K-Mart circa 2019 — hollow and unproductive. Yet the store bounced back strong. And with its help, so will we. At the time of this writing, providers at our county sites have administered almost 340,000 doses of vaccine. When Essex County tells the story of beating the pandemic, the West Orange K-Mart and all the vaccination sites will play central roles. For Montclairians the road to normal life runs straight through K-Mart’s doors.
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet. An essay of hers appears in “Of Courtiers and Princes: Stories of Lower Court Clerks and Their Judges.”