By Nick Suhr ~
Every few years as the holidays approach, I think about growing up on West 22nd Street in the part New York City called “Chelsea.” One of my memories is the Woolworth five-and-dime store on the corner of Eight Avenue and 23rd Street. It was a special place. It had everything, even a section where you could buy a pet parakeet or canary and a cage, sandpaper linings and bird seed. There was a bowling alley above the store, and you could hear the balls drop on the lanes, crash into the pins, and then a “clunk” when the machine dropped the pins down on the lane for the next frame. In the back of the store was a lunch counter with chrome stools that had shiny red Naugahyde seats that spun around. Behind that counter were made the best chocolate malteds in the world.
In February 1878, Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first store – “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” – in upstate New York. He and his brother built the business nationwide on a model that most children today would only find in the many “dollar” stores that now dot the landscape in most cities, towns, and villages: open shelves and tables full of merchandise, sharply discounted prices, and a homey atmosphere. In the beginning, the stores around the country were separate chains. In 1912 they agreed to combine to form F. W. Woolworth Company, with almost 600 stores nationwide. In 1913, the Woolworth Building on Broadway in lower Manhattan was completed. Until 1930, it was the tallest building in the world and still today is an architectural tourist attraction. Woolworths were not the only five-and-dime stores. W. T. Grant, S. S. Kresge, McCrory’s, and G. C. Murphy were just some of the companies that stepped up to compete with Woolworth.
Expansion and Termination
In the first half of the twentieth century, Woolworth was constantly expanding to the point where in 1962 it added a separate group of stores called “Woolco.” Ironically, 1962 was also the year that names like K-Mart, Target, and Wal-Mart went up on billboards and TV screens across the country. Woolworth continued trying to hold market share by expansion in the second half of the century, but this was not enough to meet the onslaught of these modrn-day competitors. Racial turmoil in the south during the Sixties added to the company’s woes. It tried to reorganize in 1993 by closing 400 of its 800 U.S. retail stores and converting the Canadian Woolco stores to close-out stores. Nothing worked. Wal-Mart acquired the Canadian stores and, in 1997, replaced Woolworth in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. A few months later, on July 17, 1997, Woolworth closed its last 400 U. S. stores and changed the company name to Venator. The next day, the New York Times quoted New York stock market analyst Susan Silverstein as follows:
Sadly, this is end end of the soda fountain era . . .
About the author: Nick Suhr is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and a lawyer by profession. Nick is a regular contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine where this article was originally published. Thank you, Nick, for sharing your writing with our audience.