An elegy to the old-fashioned dime store in Daydreaming on the Porch

  • Feb. 6, 2021, 9:11 p.m.
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  • Public

I called them dime stores when I was a kid. The one down the street from me in a small strip shopping center was a TG&Y 5 10 & 25 cent Store. When I was 9 and had my 25 cent weekly allowance in hand, I would walk the short distance to this veritable emporium of merchandise on a Saturday morning after watching cartoons, and eagerly anticipate what I could buy with that meager quarter: magnets, yo-yos, bubble makers, bubble gum, Hershey bars, Sweet Tarts. And on and on.

I never forgot that first dime store, nor the second one a couple of years later when we moved to our new house in the suburbs. There was another small strip shopping center with a Winn-Dixie food store, a Morgan and Lindsay dime store, a barber shop, and a Royal Castle hamburger place (like Crystals and White Castles up north). Those were the best hamburgers I have ever tasted, before or since. Small thin square patties on a square bun with grilled onions and a pickle. Nothing finer for a hungry boy who rode there on his bike and could easily eat up to half a dozen of those mini-burgers along with a mug of frosted root beer.

My thirst for reading beyond encyclopedia articles led me to escape to literature by age 10 or 11. Morgan and Lindsay, and most ten cent stores back then, carried the abridged editions of classics. I remember buying and reading for the first time “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.” It was years later that I discovered just how much lengthier and influential those novels were in American literary history. This was right before I moved into Hardy Boys and Edgar Rice Burroughs territory.

I had a desk with a bookshelf on top of it in my bedroom, and since my library was lacking volumes, I decided to join the Doubleday Dollar Book Club. Unfortunately, I thought all the books were a dollar, but they weren’t. You could get three books for a dollar when you joined, with featured selections sent every six weeks or so unless you told them not to send a book that month. Sound familiar?

Needless to say my 12-year-old literary and intellectual pretensions led me to purchase books I never was going to read (somewhat like today, 60 years later). One of those books I ordered was H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History,” which, believe it or not, I still have decades later, sitting on a shelf in my den. Thus my literary/intellectual book buying career began humbly when I joined that bargain book club.

I’ve never lost my love of dime stores. I remember being so saddened when in 1997 our F.W. Woolworth dime store downtown closed. I have fond memories of Kress and Woolworth stores in the small city where my aunt and grandparents lived. When my aunt was a teenager, she worked in that Kress on Main Street. There was also a McClellans’s dime store a couple of blocks away, which lasted until 1993, I believe. That store was magical. I loved going there when I was in my teens. The first things I noticed when I entered were the creaking wooden floors and the smell of hot, buttered popcorn. Inside were rows upon rows of counters filled with goods. Counters, not shelves. I recall buying some supplies for school there including a pencil case, which had room for pencils, pens, erasers and pencil sharpeners. So cool.

The dimes stores of old are pretty much gone now, replaced by enormous Wal-Marts in every big and little city and town throughout the country. It’s not that Wal-Marts and their scale and size were a surprise. Woolworth opened huge mega-dime stores in the 1960s called Woolco, and they were very popular and exciting back then. They preceded malls and K-Marts that appeared slightly later.

Before the pandemic I regularly stopped in at two local Dollar Tree stores near where I live. They are absolutely the modern-day incarnation of the old Woolworths and TG&Ys of my youth. I felt like an adult kid in a candy store as I made my way down all the aisles, up one and then another, shrewdly looking for the best values and unusual thinga-majigs. I haven’t returned in almost a year, but when things get more back to normal, I’ll visit those Dollar Trees, Big Lots and Tuesday Mornings. My tabletops and counters are filled with do-dads from those places.

In the last 20 years, I’ve written twice about the last of the small-town dime stores that I was aware of, located about an hour from me in a quaint and historic town with a struggling Main Street. I loved going in that store every time I visited the town.

Here’s what I wrote in 2002:

Saturday, I revisited the small town I wrote about earlier this year. It’s a snapshot in time. Nothing seems to have changed. Nothing moves very fast, especially on a hot weekend afternoon, late, when the sleepy main street is almost deserted and I am the only one walking about, in and out of this store and that.

Of course, I had to go back to the dime store and check out the nostalgia scene. What a time capsule that place is! It never ceases to amaze me. Four months later, I walk in and the same old man and his son and wife are scattered about the store straightening merchandise, walking around, looking out the big window onto main street. Just like before. And, just like before, they each ask me if I need some help finding anything, and I smile and tell them I am “just looking.”

I wander around the aisles and realize that I could be back in 1925, except for the fact that everything is so deserted. It’s too quiet. No one is in the store. It’s empty, just like Main Street.

The owner stocks a little bit of everything from orange juice squeezers to oil lamps, to socks and Bic pens. I always try to buy something when I’m there, stuff I don’t need but which I can probably use at some point: a spiral notepad, a soap container for traveling, and a small round globe that is also a pencil sharpener. I had to buy that to put on my desk at work at get odd looks. It seems like ten-cent stores have had those since the very beginning. It reminds me of my childhood. Besides, it’s always fun to spin a globe and see where it lands.

I chatted with the owner and his wife while they were ringing up my purchases. We talked about the odd weather. I mean, 92 degrees in the middle of April is strange. The purchases were snuggly fitted in a brown paper bag which was stapled closed with the receipt attached.

Walking out the door, I ambled up Main Street almost to the end, and entered the old antiques store I try to visit, despite the fact that the “antiques” truly are junk, not even much in the way of interesting collectibles. Everything on certain display tables was “20% Off.” I had to laugh at that. They could knock 80% off and not sell most of the stuff in that store. But it’s huge — two adjoining brick buildings that once were probably merantile or dry goods stores back in the 19th century.

I walked from room to room, each step making noticable creaking sounds on the wooden floors. Above was the untouched original, pressed tin ceiling. I saw a print of an old grist mill in the window which I bought and have now in the dining room, sitting upright on a box. I am wondering why on earth I bought it. I collect grist mill memorabilia, but this one is cheesy even by my loose standards for that kind of stuff.

Anyway, it was probably the only purchase the dour lady presiding over the place had made all day. It was a nice scene, she had said. It would make a nice puzzle. Of course, that’s what it reminded me of. The print was made by an outfit called Precious Treasures Wholesale Co. in Tennessee. Oh, boy. That says it all.

I wrote this a year later in 2003:

Walterboro is the kind of place where you truly step back in time. I was there yesterday, having enjoyed a drive past old antebellum houses and tall oak trees in the historic downtown neighborhoods. It was one of those spring days when I HAD to get out of the house and on the road for a relaxing day trip down country byways into the deep Carolina countryside. This little town lies right in the midst of that “deep country.” I can’t explain it too well other than to say it’s usually where I stop on all my drives away from Charleston to really get a “change of scenery.” Back country does that for me.

Yesterday, the azaleas everywhere in the yards of one rural home after another were full of reddish/pink flowers — at their peak. I love the old farmstead shrubs. They’re often decades old and as huge as the plants can get, so they are a powerful jolt of color in the greening landscape. It was amazing. Everywhere I looked as I drove down sparsely traveled roads I could see azaleas in bloom. People plant them everywhere in the South.

On the main street of the little town, before going to get a barbecue supper, I did a little shopping at the bookstore, but with sadness. It seems as if every other store on main street is abandoned and empty. There are lots of small businesses struggling to make it, and the town has revitalized the main thoroughfare, fixing up empty store fronts and getting them ready for new occupants — hopefully — if they even decide to locate there at all. Maybe one day these main streets will have a real renaissance when people finally get tired of the strip shopping centers and malls. I know this is a very quaint and optimistic thought.

But what saddened me was the closing of the last old dime store there in the town, a real old-fashioned ten-cent store that had been there who knows how many years. It was everything I remembered from the 5&10s of my youth: cabinets and cases of goods, shelves against the walls, candy in glass cases, hardware, clothes, school supplies, knick knacks of every variety. I would stop in there every time I made a visit to the town to just take in the atmosphere and go back in time. This places is about as far from a Wal-Mart or CVS drugstore as anything can be these days.

The employees were all elderly. I remember them well. I figured they were a family of brothers and sisters, all in their 70s and 80s. Four of them. They were there every time I dropped in, year after year. They always greeted me and asked if I needed any help finding anything. There was usually only at most one other customer in the store, but it didn’t matter to me. I just wandered around selecting odds and ends to purchase, just to be buying something from them. I didn’t need anything, although the ceramic corn cob-shaped and colored corn-on-the-cob holder I bought for a couple of dollars a few years ago has been one the most most useful items in my kitchen. Looking at it makes me want to go to the store and buy fresh corn-on-the-cob and roll it in the corn holder in melted butter, then salt it up good and eat it. There is not much better eating in the summer. Such are the little things you could buy at that store.

Remember those little globes with the pencil sharpeners in them at the base? I got one of those too. It’s on my desk at work. I used to get those when I was a kid. I was always fascinated by maps and globes and learning about countries by reading the encyclopedia. I’d also buy pens, index card file holders, post cards, and notebooks. The clerks would ring the purchases on a rather dated cash register and place each item carefully in one of those old fashioned thin brown paper bags. You don’t see those much anymore.

But now it’s all gone. No more visits to the dime store from the past. I peered rather gloomily on a sun-filled afternoon in the front store windows to see a large empty space with only a few shelves remaining along the far walls of the building. Empty. The store seemed so small, too, when it was no longer cluttered with bins and shelves full of goods.

I mentioned how sad it was to see that place gone when I was purchasing a couple of books at the bookstore a few blocks down the street. The clerk there just nodded and didn’t say another word.

Last updated February 06, 2021

ConnieK February 06, 2021

Ah, I remember the Five and Dime, which eventually became Woolworth's. Loved the old wood counters and curved glass display cases. I read all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, as well as the Bobsey Twins. I also read all the Horatio Alger Jr books (my father's generation). As I got older, my passions were mysteries, history (fiction and non), and biographies/autobiographies. I enjoyed reading your memory and was struck by your observations about Main Street dying out because of the WalMarts and Woolco's, etc. Now, Retail stores struggle as online shopping pushes them out. Too bad we can't see 50 years into the future to see how shopping changes.

Oswego ConnieK ⋅ February 07, 2021

The old-fashioned dime stores, I’m afraid, are gone forever: Dollar Tree is fun, but it can’t compare.

When or if I start traveling again after it’s safe, I plan to research small towns that might still have old dime stores, against all odds. I’d love to find some of them m, and also good antique stores and flea markets.

Neogy Titwhistle February 06, 2021

Toys, Guns & Yo-yo's! I remember those stores! All over the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. As iconic as the Allsup's convenience stores with those deep fried burritos!

Marg February 07, 2021

This even produced nostalgia in the UK - especially the wooden floors and counters in Woolworths which we had too! Half my class at school worked in our local ‘Woolies’ on a Saturday and when I finished work in Dad’s shop Saturday lunchtime I would meander along to Woolies and have a yarn with them all :)

Oswego Marg ⋅ February 07, 2021

They were such great places. There is nothing like them today. Dollar Tree here in the US comes close but nothing can compare to the dime store ambience.

mcbee February 07, 2021

I miss bookstores so much.
Like you, I look forward to being able to browse through the dollar stores, Big Lots and (yes!) Tuesday morning again one day

Oswego mcbee ⋅ February 07, 2021

Absolutely. I had gotten so I really loved going to Dollar Tree. But what does THAT say about me!? Lol

Jinn February 08, 2021

When I lived with my Grandparents Saturday’s we went to town . Woolworths was a favorite of my Grandmothers . I always got something ; a statue ( tiny kittens , a purple cow, a pink poodle :-) , a goldfish, a baby turtle ( did you see those turtle tanks in the store you went to ?) . I had a special bowl for my turtles with an island area and palm tree . Shockingly my turtles kept disappearing ! Much later I would find out my Grandfather pitied them so much he would just set them free in our ponds and buy me a new one the next month. I can’t remember how many he bought me but I know it must have been many over the years. They sold birds there too ( parakeets, canaries, finches ) . My Grandmother had a weakness for those and we always had multiples of them. She especially loved canaries . There was tiny bottles of perfume , big boxes of crayons , drawing tablets and Penny Candy My Grandmother would buy fabric there and yarn . . I loved those shopping trips .
We always ate lunch out after woolworths , at a drug store soda fountain ; they had wonderful hamburgers, hand cut fries and cherry or vanilla cokes . Home made pies . It was such a treat ! Hamburgers never tasted as good to me now as they did then .
I go to Dollar Tree now every couple weeks. I buy most of my cleaning supplies there. Sometimes I buy seasonal decorations too . You can get nice discounted Hallmark cards , craft supplies , toiletries , food storage containers , pens , solar lights, gardening tools , plant pots , gardening gloves , seed starter soil, and cosmetics ,. I do not buy any of it but you can buy frozen and canned food. Lots of bread choices . I do buy candy there once in awhile .I buy wash clothes there . I buy dish towels, Scented Epsom salts, and laundry stuff ( all fabric bleach and scent beads to put in your wash) there .

Oswego Jinn ⋅ February 11, 2021

You sure have some very fond and detailed memories of your Saturday forays to Woolworth with your grandparents. Funny that your grandfather kept releasing the little turtles. I probably would have done the same thing and bought more. Or, maybe I would have sat down and talked to you about how important it is for all creatures to be free. But hen were children we don’t normally think of those things unless prompted. Those lunch counter burgers and fries were the best. The fast food joints of today can’t even compare.

Sabrina-Belle February 10, 2021

I loved Woolworth's as a child. There was a counter where they sold biscuits loose (cookies). You could buy a bag of broken ones cheap.
We have £1 shops. There used to be a chain called Poundstretcher which our children loved. I lost Tony in there when he was 4. I turned to look at something and he had gone. An assistant found him on the top floor looking at the toys! Sadly they closed down not long after Woolworth's.

Oswego Sabrina-Belle ⋅ February 11, 2021

So sad they are gone! I remember at a dime store glass cases full of chunks of chocolate that sold by the pound. I’ll never forget that because I love chocolate.

Newzlady February 11, 2021

Fond memories.

Oswego Newzlady ⋅ February 11, 2021

Memory Lane!

Kristi1971 February 13, 2021

My Nana used to take me to Woolworth's sometimes. I think that was when my uncle would take us as she didn't drive. The McClellans was in downtown Brunswick, and we would walk there at least once while I would visit her.

Those were the days. She lived off the street near Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME. It was not exactly downtown, but the walk was great. She walked everywhere. She had a cart that she bought to hold her groceries even, so she could be absolutely independent. I do remember taking a taxi with her a couple of times, but I want to see that it might have been in January when it was just too frigid to walk that far even bundled up.

Our downtown visits included a lot of window shopping. There was one store that carried my favorite mystery of the time, Trixie Belden. She would get me a book and a smurf. The book was $1.97 and the smurf was probably 25 cents. Of course, I would divour the book in one or two days and want more, but I respected her fixed income. She never let us feel we didn't have even though she didn't have a large income. Her love made me feel so rich. :)

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