Remember Woolworth’s – the Five & Dime

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I bought scalloped-edged handkerchiefs and decorative pin/earrings sets for my mother's Christmas and birthday gifts there.

I bought crisp white handkerchiefs with a monogram on them for my dad there.

I bought ribbons of all colors to tie around my pony and pig tails and match my outfits there. (The ribbons were on giant spools and the clerk would cut off the length you requested).

I visited the goldfish, gerbils and birds there.

I crossed my fingers at every visit that this time we'd be able to eat at the counter and sit on the swivel stools there. (I loved the waitresses' uniforms.)

"There" was Woolworth's, also known as the five-and-dime.

A wave of nostalgia came over me during a few recent walks when I passed the sites of three former Woolworth stores that had figured prominently in my young adult life in Boston. There are no more stores like the old Woolworth’s and other “five and dime” stores of my youth.

F. W. Woolworth Company was one of the original five-and-dime stores in the U.S. It was founded in 1879 by Frank Winfield Woolworth and grew to be one of the largest retail store chains in the world during the 20th century, when virtually every city had several of the stores. (In my hometown, there were other five-and-dime stores like Ben Franklin and Kresge's before it became K-Mart.) As competition grew and big box stores, which offered a new way to shop for everyday goods, began their domination, Woolworth's couldn't complete and went out of business in January 1997. The parent company owned the Foot Locker stores and many of the smaller neighborhood locations in Boston became Foot Lockers.

The former Woolworth’s in downtown Boston was the largest I’d ever seen when I went there as a college freshman. I took the T –- also a new experience –- from my dorm with my roommate and new friends downtown. It was huge! There were four or five floors filled with stuff! (We also discovered Filene’s Basement on our first trip downtown, the place for great bargains, especially on clothes and shoes.)

But shopping for our dorm rooms was done at Woolworth’s, with a foray to the Harvard Coop in Cambridge for posters and art work.

Boston's downtown Woolworth's had a huge counter with swivel stools that dominated the first floor. I remember ordering a hamburger, fries and shake, counting my money carefully. ATMs hadn’t yet been invented, and there was no way to get a quick infusion of cash, so money had to be carefully managed. I don’t even remember if there were Western Union outlets in those days. (One waited for an envelope with a check or cash to arrive from home. One got a work-study or other job and opened a checking account.)

Over the years, I went to the Woolworth's located in the Dudley Square business district in Roxbury and in the Field’s Corner section of Dorchester. Each store had all the household goods and cosmetics I needed, often crammed in small spaces. I walked around the whole store with one of my kids in the stroller while the other held my hand and shopped.

We always did a tour of the small pet section of the store, looking at goldfish and gerbils. My daughter nagged me for goldfish, as I had nagged my mother. I succumbed once or twice. We also looked at the birds, listening to their songs and hoping the parrot would speak.

Growing up in St. Louis, the Woolworth’s figured prominently in my life as well. A trip to Woolworth's was a special trip. My sister and I were allowed to walk up to the Wellston Business District a few blocks from home with our allowance (on weeks that allowance was available). I always saved my money to buy ribbons to decorate my pony-tails and pig-tails. I had ribbons in every color to coordinate with my outfits. When we could, we’d also by brightly-colored sports socks.

A special treat was if my mother or aunt took us to the “big one” downtown on Grand and Olive. It had three stories and those stools that swivel. I always remember getting a hot dog and fries with orange Vess soda. Next to going to the Footlong Hotdog place or White Castles, the Woolworth’s counter was my favorite place to eat away from home.

By the time I was a kid, the stores were integrated, and so I never experienced sitting at a separate counter as my mother did at both Woolworths and Kresge’s.

Sitting for Justice: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter

On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.

In my junior year of high school, I learned about the lunch-counter sit-ins and got so angry, I wouldn’t step foot in one for more than a year until one of my cousins told me that other black people had fought so I could go and that I needed to let my anger go. “You have injustices of your own to be angry about,” he counseled.

I “slowed my row,” as we used to say, and became radicalized, reading everything I could about civil rights and injustices. He was right, during my last two years of high school, Kent State happened, the drive to bring the voting age down to 18, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, mini-skirts, legalization of abortion and a whole host of explosive issues gave me plenty to learn about, protest, and grow through.

Woolworth’s was a place of comfort for me. I could buy white Keds sneakers cheaply (and the white polish that kept them pristine) and always afford a bite to eat. A friend got a job there for $3.00 per hour. She was good at math, which is why they hired her. (Although she had zero customer-service skills.)

The Woolworth's of my youth was crisp and clean, well-appointed. It started going downhill in the late seventies -- becoming crowded with lack-luster displays. And then it went away. But I remember it.

Related Links:


Remembering Woolworth's: A Nostalgic History of the World's Most Famous Five-and-Dime (Paperback) - by Karen Plunkett- Powell

Bigmama Didn't Shop at Woolworth's by Sunny Nash

Good and plenty!

Image Credit: Wikimedia

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