Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A former employee digitized the cheesy soundtracks for your listening pleasure.
Haunted house idea: Open up the doors to your local abandoned Kmart, hand out shopping carts, and play an old in-store soundtrack on repeat.
Such disturbing fantasies are now possible courtesy of former Kmart employee Mark Davis, who recently digitized his collection of in-store tapes and put them all on Archive.org.
Davis worked at multiple Chicago-area Kmarts between 1989 and 1999. While working the service desk, Davis would put the tapes in his company apron whenever a new one came in.
Davis has 56 different Kmart cassettes. In a YouTube video, he explains that the store switched from monthly muzak tapes in the ‘80s to weekly tapes with mainstream hits during the ‘90s. One tape from July 1992 starts off with “Do It to Me” by Lionel Richie, followed by a no-smoking announcement, an ad for sporting goods, another one for shoes, and then the next track, “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.
Kmart was founded on good deals and fire mixtapes.
“I figured someday it would be kind of interesting,” Davis says of his collection. He’s right. The tapes are a marvelous trip back into the world of Peak Kmart, when it was the second largest retailer in the U.S. (Heading into the 1990s, it trailed just behind Sears—and the companies merged in 2005, under an $11 billion deal.)
But the growth of Walmart and Target set Kmart in a downward spiral, which only worsened with the emergence of online shopping. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and while many stores still exist, abandoned locations are easily found around the country.
For anyone who grew up shopping at Kmart during the period of Davis’s tapes, listening to them feels both comforting and dark. The mundane memories of staring at the Little Caesars counter while waiting for your mom to try on the latest Jaclyn Smith apparel are all too real once again. Very spooky.