Monday, December 22, 2008

Woolworths UK closing (no more place to meet that million dollar baby)

I can't remember when the last Woolworth's closed in the U.S. - a decade ago, at least -  but I do remember the last Woolie's I used to frequent. It was a big, "modern" store on Washington Street in downtown Boston. I didn't do a lot of shopping there, but it was a supremely convenient source for things like needles and thread, houseplants, tinsel, Rubbermaid dish drainers, and Contac paper.

It sold all sorts of things, including goldfish, parakeets, toys, inexpensive clothing and household items. As I could tell from my many forays there, it was a place where people without a lot of money shopped - something of a pre-cursor to Walmart.

I'm currently reading The Skyscraper and the City, Gail Fenske's  wonderful history of New York's iconic Woolworth Building. More on this book at a later date, but one thing that has struck me in reading it are the parallels between F.W. Woolworth's empire and Sam Walton's. Both were built on selling low priced goods to the masses; high-pressuring producers (many, in both cases, overseas) to keep costs down; eradicating the local, stand-alone shops on Main Street; and paying low wages.

The people who worked at Woolworth's also seemed poorer than those who worked at Filene's or Jordan Marsh: less well-turned out, less well-spoken.

The store was always a bit depressing to me, but still I felt bad when it went out of business.

Most of my fond Woolworth's memories are of the store in Worcester's Webster Square Plaza, a miserable little strip mall, anchored by a Zayre's, that opened in our neighborhood when I was in third or fourth grade.

It may have been in a miserable little strip mall, but it soon became the Saturday and school vacation destination for me and my friends. As long as we had a little walking around money, to Woolworth's we did go.

This was, of course, in the late 1950's-early 1960's, when the five and ten cent store was still, truly, a five and ten cent store.

Yes, it did sell more expensive items - Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew books cost 49 cents - but you could absolutely find things to buy if all you had was one thin dime.

And what could you get for that one thin dime?

A globe pencil sharpener. An 8-pack of Crayolas. An amber glass piggy bank. A 5¢ pad (a jumbo pad made out of coarse, newsprint paper). A package of jacks. Rolls of caps - not just useful for cap guns, but excellent for sitting around and smashing with a rock. So what if half of them didn't go off? The ones that did gave off a gratifying ing mini-explosion. And, oh, the wonderful smell of cap gun powder.

At Woolie's, you could also buy any number of cheap-o rubber and plastic toys - mostly boy-toys, like little rubber race cars (the axles were metal) and rubber daggers. (The rubber daggers were essentially for our regular family (kids only) enactments of "Oh, Martina," which we used to play at night in the basement when our parents kicked us down there to run off some steam.

Either my sister Kath or I would play Martina, putting on the gaudy, luridly-painted skirt that my grandmother had brought back for my mother from her great adventure to Mexico. Well, a brightly painted skirt decorated with a bullfighter waving his red flag at a charging toro was never going to adorn my mother, but it made a great costume.

There were only two other roles - Juan and Pedro - so one of the four of us would have had to be odd-actor out. (The baby was too little to factor in these dramas.)

It didn't really matter if you had a role, since the whole point of the play was to chant the brief, but action-packed script in its entirety:

"Oh, Martina, will you marry me?"

"No, Pedro, I must marry Juan."

"If you marry Juan, I must stab you to death."

Stab, stab.

Thus, the need for the rubber dagger from Woolworth's.

In truth, we probably only played "Oh, Martina" a few times, but it certainly sticks out in my mind. Not exactly Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney - "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!".

The only other recurring play I remember predates "Oh, Martina." In "I Wonder What's Become of Sally," my sister Kathleen and I would sit in an armchair and sing the only line of "I Wonder..." that we knew. I.e., "I wonder what's become of Sally." When we finished that line, one of us would toss my doll Sally out of the chair.

It was a simpler time....

Ah, Woolworth's.

There was a peanut roasting machine there, and for a dime you could buy a little bag of fresh-roasted peanuts. If you had another dime, you could buy a vanilla coke at the soda fountain. My friend Bernadette and I split plenty of bags of peanuts and cokes at Woolworth's.

You could also buy excellent - and not so excellent - Christmas presents there. I remember buying my father a beanbag ashtray, and my mother these hideous salt and pepper shakers - parsnips or turnips with cutesie little faces on them.

One Christmas, my brother Tom had no presents under the tree for me and Kath. We knew he'd gotten us something, but he was reluctant to bring the gifts out. So, of course, we started to badger him for them.

"You'll laugh," he said.

"We won't," we insisted.

Tom had gotten us each a work of art: a plastic-framed picture, one of the Matterhorn, the other of the Last Supper.

Yes, we did laugh, but I had that Matterhorn in my room for a good long time.

Ah, Woolworth's.

I've been thinking Woolworth's a lot since I started reading The Skyscraper and the City.

But it's also on my mind because I saw last week in the Boston Globe that Woolworth's in the UK is closing its doors next month.

I don't know if Woolworth's UK was the same sort of emporium as it was in the US, and whether it offered generations of little Brits the same tawdry, magical pleasures of shopping there, but it still makes me a little nostalgic to see it go.

30,000 employees will lose their jobs - and a big, bah humbug to you, too - and 800 neighborhoods will be without a place where they can stroll in, browse, and pick up a necessity, a treasure, or an out and out piece of crap.

Ah, Woolworth's.

I never did meet a million dollar baby there, but it sure was fun growing up with a five and ten cent store nearby.


John said...

One of our "big days out" when I was little kid was a shopping trip to downtown Bridgeport (CT), back when you could buy something besides pornography and crack cocaine there. One of the highlights was Woolworth's, and having lunch in the cafeteria. I didn't know the UK stores will still open until I heard they were closing.

Another highlight of those trips, when I was a little older, was the Bridgeport Library. I'm sure my that in my childhood memories it is much more fabulous than it really was, but it had a better collection that our (reasonably good) suburban library.

In retrospect it strikes me as wonderful that a blue collar town like Bridgeport, with an economy that revolved around manufacturing and its port, would have a nice library. Aspiring to greater knowledge was worthwhile. Even as the city disintegrated around it, we'd go to that library to do research for school projects too demanding for the local library. (Now of course there's no need to go to a library at all...)

Trixie said...

I remember going to the soda fountain with my friends and we'd each order the "Little Shaver" sundae - a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. For some reason that name put us into fits of laughter - it was high hilarity any time we ordered one. Don't remember how much it cost, but couldn't have been much if we had the scratch to enjoy one.

I do also remember how the women in there would follow us around the store keeping their eagle eyes on us - like we didn't have any money and were going to steal things. We were very indignant - they must not have known that we were Catholic school girls and wouldn't dream of such things!

Rick said...

The great thing about Woolworths, at least the big one in Boston, was how it carried EVERYTHING, and did everything. You could sit at a counter and get the heels on your shoes replaced while you waited, or let them work on it while you walked in your socks to another counter where you could have lunch of hot dogs that had been cooking for who knows how many hours on those roller things. Then retrieve your shoes and buy books, auto parts, and a parakeet. What a great store.

In its last year, as it was willing to try anything to survive, the store rented out various spots on the main floor to outside operators, most of whom sold products requiring a demonstration--think Vegematic, or some off brand of vacuum cleaner. These demonstrators usually had a raised platform and spoke loud to attract a crowd. There were places you could stand on the main floor and hear several pitches at once--like a Charles Ives symphony with competing marching bands heard at various distances. I'm glad I wasted so much time there, because we will probably never see its like again.

Maureen Rogers said...

I was trying to remember everything that the Boston Woolworth's sold. Is it possible that they sold hunting rifles? Am I hallucinating that one? I'd forgotten about those Vegamatic guys...

We were warned in grammar school that Woolworth's had private detectives, including midgets disguised as babies being pushed in baby buggies, who were on the lookout for youthful shoplifters. But, of course, parochial school kids did not steal (that was the pubs!).

In any event, it sounds like it's time to bring back Woolworth's!

Rick said...

I also recall seeing some rifles there--when did that place close, maybe 15 years ago? I'm not sure they were hunting rifles, they could have been BB gun rifles for kids (for some kids; I know my parents would never let me have one.)

katrog said...

OMG--this little walk down memory lane had me laughing until I cried.

As to the Webster Square Woolies, you must remember that those roasted peanuts were very glamorous Spanish peanuts--smaller than regular ones and you could get them in quarter pound helpings! Ah, the grease! Ah, the salt!

I lived and worked in downtown Boston for many years and was in there all the time. Getting my shoes fixed or buying "feeder goldfish" for our pet turtle.

My favorite vendor was the old guy with the "Irish canaries"--little plastic bird-shaped whistles you filled with water so you blow into them and warble. Simpler times indeed--but it wasn't all that long ago LOL

I agree that it was downmarket--what other store in the area had escaped parakeets flying around? But it had a mixed crowd of customers because of it's proximity to the financial district. If you needed windshield wipers (as we did once in order to drive out of town) where else could you get them downtown?

And, yes, some of the employees weren't of the classiest variety. Once I was in there in the vicinity of the customer service desk. Someone was trying to return a bird. The young woman behind the counter was trying to help, but had to consult on the phone with someone in the pet department."How do I know what's wrong with it? The bird is f***ed up, that's what it is." Shades of Monty Python.