Remembering department stores of the past
BY LILY KONGSLIEN
Special to the Star Journal
Yes, you could get many items with a nickel or a dime, and a quarter would get you a toy, perhaps a book or a bag of candy at the Woolworth store. There actually were clerks in the back of the counters in the many departments in the old “five and dime” store. They waited on customers, took their money, made change and packed their purchases for them. I particularly remember the candy counter where the clerk weighed the candy according to the customer’s order and bagged the sweet purchase. The glass-fronted cases gave the chance to view the various sweets and every so often, they featured cookies by the pound. I can still, in my memory, taste the coconut bars that were chewy and fresh.
Then there was the jewelry counter, which included necklaces, earrings, pearls (imitation of course) and many beauty aids. This was a favorite counter usually surrounded by a group of laughing friendly girls as they tried on rings, costume jewelry and tested the many bottles of cologne and perfume. Finger nail polish was a very popular item, with many shades of pink and red.
The counter that was very busy in the fall was the school supplies area. Pencil boxes, tablets, notebooks, fountain pens and every kind of pencil was available. High stacks of tablets of every size and color attracted the younger boys and girls while the older ones were interested in fancy pens, notebooks and colored pencils.
Needless to say, the toy counter was the favorite of many. I remember especially the dolls, marbles, toy cars of all sizes and descriptions, jacks, games, wind-up toys of all kinds, paper doll books and other books, including the all-time favorite, The Big Little Books. Next to this counter was the record counter where you could have played any records for sale before deciding on your purchase. Records (78s) were around a quarter in price. It was at this music counter that I purchased my first harmonica.
Towards the back of the store there were household things such as dishes, ironing boards, silverware, mops, brooms, small hardware items and clothing items such as socks, underwear, aprons, girdles and shoes.
How very different from our super stores of today. The goods were displayed on low, open counters. The floors were wooden and creaked as you walked along. The aisles were very narrow and there were cash registers in each department. There was an enclosed office in the back of the store where the manager and his office girls worked. I do remember that at times, perhaps at the busy time of the day, there were floor-walkers, usually young fellows, who roamed up and down the aisles. I don’t think there was much shoplifting in those days, however. The stores were not open on Sunday, and on Friday night had late hours to accommodate the working people and rural people. Stores were open all day on Saturday, but actually Friday night was the big “shopping night.”
The “old” F. W. Woolworth Five & Dime store of the ‘20s and ‘30s was located on South Brown Street which eventually moved across the street to North Brown Street. From there, it relocated in the Trig’s mall until the store permanently closed.
I checked on the history of F. W. Woolworth stores and found the following facts: the first store opened in the United States in 1879 by F. W. Woolworth in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Woolworth’s was incorporated in 1911 and by that time, Mr. Woolworth owned more than 1,000 “five and dime” stores across the country where people could purchase previously unavailable merchandise at much lower prices. Woolworth stores were also in several foreign countries.
I miss the Woolworth store today, specifically at its last location in the River Walk mall, because there were very few items they didn’t carry. It was truly a great store in its day, and has a place in many of our memories. The newer stores may be more modern, specialized and sophisticated, but I’d take a F.W. Woolworth store any day. They are just memories today, but such pleasant memories.