SIDE STREETS: 83-year-old Colorado Springs Sears saleswoman still going strong

Staff reports Published: May 11, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Mary Bigler isn't quite Rosie the Riveter, the World War II icon of American women who left their homes by the thousands to work in factories building planes and munitions in support of the war effort.

And she's certainly not a Walmart greeter - older folks hired to stand at the doors of the retail giant welcoming shoppers.

Mary falls somewhere in between as an 83-year-old tool saleswoman at Sears on Southgate Road in the Broadmoor Towne Center.

Need a router? Just ask Mary.

'I've always been fascinated by them, ' she said, describing how she built a birdhouse using a router just so she'd know what she was selling.

Maybe you need a drill. Mary has two at the home east of downtown where she has lived most of her life since her family moved to Colorado Springs during the Great Depression in 1936.

She was just 6 at the time but remembers her family leaving their farm in Missouri and taking a train here in search of work. They were poor and didn't have a car until she was an adult. For years they lived in rentals near the Union Printers Home where her mother walked to work each day. (When it snowed, her mother wrapped her feet in newspapers because they couldn't afford boots.)

Perhaps you need a finish sander or sabre saw. Mary is adept with each and can help you find just what you need.

'Whenever I need to know about a tool, I call her, ' said Mary's son, Methodist minister Ed Bigler of Sterling. 'She knows that stuff inside and out. '

That wasn't the case in 1982 when she took the job.

'I knew nothing about tools, ' she said. 'I learned on the sales floor. '

At the time, Mary was a widow and single parent and needed the income and benefits. Her beloved husband, Edgar, had died at age 50 in 1971. She had three older children but still had a 7-year-old daughter at home to raise. Mary met Edgar at a drugstore downtown in 1945 after he returned from the war. He'd been a tailgunner in a B-17 and flew 36 missions over Germany, his son said. They were married a few months later.

When Edgar died, Ed Bigler said, his mother drew on her history of hard work.

'She was determined to live life on her own and provide for her own needs, ' he said.

Going back to work, even in a job she knew nothing about, came naturally. Just as her father had quit farming, moved the family and become a common laborer to support their family all those year ago.

Mary also went back to school. It took her 10 years of night school until she earned a teaching degree from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Once she completed the degree, she taught at Hunt Elementary School for 10 years, still hawking tools on weekends.

'I had expenses and I needed the benefits, ' Mary said of her double-duty teaching and selling tools at Sears.

It hasn't always been easy at Sears.

Early in her hardware sales career, she heard snide comments that she belonged in women's wear.

And she endured pay cuts, such as in 1992 when the retail giant slashed the hourly pay of sales employees and put them on a commission status.

Mary went from making $7.50 an hour to $4.50 an hour, plus a 1 percent commission. To recoup her lost hourly pay, Mary figured she had to sell $300 worth of hardware every hour she worked. Of course, she never did and even now makes only a $6 hourly base.

Even with her Social Security, Mary said she needs the extra income and so she works three days a week, Tuesdays through Thursdays, typically about four hours a day.

Over the years, she's become pretty knowledgeable about tools. And she marvels at the innovations she's witnessed.

'Every year they come out with something new, ' she said. 'Everything is cordless. I remember the first cordless drill we sold. When we first started selling them, we sold so many that I even dreamed about that drill. '

She has kept current on the new models with regular training. She can tell you how different attachments available make a new drill actually seven tools in one.

Besides the tools, Mary said she enjoys the customers.

'Rarely a week goes by that someone doesn't come in and say: 'You sold me my first tool set. I'm so glad you're here,' ' she said.

Her son says she's also a fan of music and the arts and is especially fond of the Fine Arts Museum.

'She's a very cultured woman, ' said Bigler, who has been a minister nearly 40 years. 'She loves to read. She follows politics assiduously. And until recently, she always raised a big garden. '

I wondered how long Mary planned to continue working.

'Until they carry me out on a gurney, ' she said with a chuckle.

Then she turned serious. Seems she's facing perhaps the biggest challenge of her Sears career. And she genuinely fears it will doom her.

It's a mobile 'point of sale ' tablet that Sears sales clerks are using. Instead of sending customers to stand in line at a cash register, clerks can make credit card transactions on a handheld computer tablet.

'I'm struggling, ' said Mary, who doesn't own a cell phone much less an iPad. 'I'm having a terrible time learning that technology. It might do me in. '

I doubt it, actually.

Just like Rosie the Riveter, Mary is smart and tough and has spent her life working hard and rising to challenges. I'm guessing she'll have that tablet figured out in no time.

I hope so, cause I'm needing a snow blower and I wouldn't want to buy it from anyone else!

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Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets

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