PHILADELPHIA Claudette Boyd and her teenage daughter, Tamika, took the 17 bus from South Philadelphia early enough Sunday morning to seize an excellent position outside Kmart in the Gallery mall. Shoulder to affectionate shoulder, the two women leaned against a railing, watching the Kmart staff prepare for the onslaught.
Behind them, as 11 a.m. approached, the competition gathered. Through the metal mesh security gate they could see dozens of blaring yellow "Everything Must Go!" signs, like flags on an Olympic slalom course, marking the aisles where the race for bargains would momentarily begin.
The decision to close the massive store was announced in January. Sunday marked the start of the liquidation sale.
Seventeen years ago, when Kmart moved into the Center City shopping complex, Claudette was one of the first employees, she said.
"I helped open the store. I made sure everything was stocked on the shelves. It was always busy."
Now 49 and a catering cook, she was there to score the best and most discounted stuff from aisles that have become almost as familiar as her bookshelves at home.
"I can't believe they're taking it away," Boyd said. "I'm shocked. Really shocked. When you're so used to going to one store. Men's over there. Women's over here. Appliances upstairs."
This beginning-of-the-end event was understandably greeted with a grimmer sort of enthusiasm than the store's grand opening in November 1997. Then, Mayor Ed Rendell and City Council President John F. Street made an appearance, hailing the dawn of a new, lucrative retail venture.
Cookie Monster and Chinese dragon dancers cut loose. Strains of a live chorus of employees belting out a Kmart version of "Downtown" echoed throughout the store's two floors, which encompass more than 110,000 square feet.
The tunes for Sunday's mop-up shoppers were strictly piped in, with lyrics inviting subtextual interpretation like Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know."
Kathy Bell scanned the merchandise with bittersweet anticipation.
"This was one of my favorite places to shop," she said, adding a joke: "Since the turn of the century!"
Within a half-hour, Bell, 47, a nurse from Oaklyn, had snatched up a few pairs of sweatpants, some hand towels, and washcloths.
"I'm trying to get everything I can," she said, "But this is not a good sale."
She hushed for a moment to eavesdrop on a man who had intercepted one of the store managers.
"When is the store closing?" the shopper asked.
"When everything is gone," the manager said. "Near the end of April."
Bell sighed in frustration. The perversity of a liquidation sale, she said, is that by the time the discounts get steeper, most of the good stuff is gone.
Nearby, a large photograph of Jaclyn Smith looked down on a display of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle twin-size comforters, on sale for $32.99.
David Rodea, a construction worker from Camden who made the trip with his wife and three children, said they, too, were disappointed at the anemic bargains.
"If it had been a 40 or 50 percent discount, that would have been good," he said.
But for Alyssa Sinibaldi, a fourth-grade teacher from Havertown, the trip was worth the effort. Pushing a cart full of toilet paper and paper towels, she said the prices on staple items could not have been better.
"This was a good place to get bargain merchandise," she said. Losing the store, she said, "That's going to hurt."
Brenda Irick, who had taken the trolley from Southwest Philadelphia, said people like her, who do not drive, will be particularly hard hit.
"They're taking everything to the suburbs," said Irick, who is 63 and living on a fixed income. "I can understand them wanting to make this higher-end. This mall is the pits. It's basically started to be a hangout for teenagers."
If, as she has heard, stores such as Bloomingdale's are coming to replace the Big K, the effect will be the retail equivalent of gentrification, with the same downside for the displaced.
"I know it will be nicer," she said, "But whether I can afford it is another matter."