Memories of five-and-dime: Stores worth so much more

The Baltimore Sun

As a news reporter for many years of my working life, one of my most important resources was a pocketsize notebook I carried with me every day. It contained an almanac of sorts: the major news stories I had covered in prior years. I turned to it every day, and on many a slow news day, it bailed me out with good story ideas: the first anniversary of this, the 20th year since that, and so on.

Recently, I found one of those old books and leafed through it. Before I knew it, an hour had passed. It was late, well beyond bedtime, but I couldn't put the thing down. Too many memories, too many old stories.

One of the things I came across was the story of Woolworth's closing all of its five-and-dime stores. This happened 10 years ago, in the fall of 1997. If I were still in the news business, you bet I'd be stomping into the boss' office on some slow news day, suggesting that we do a "10 years later" story.

If I did, that story would feature a cross-section of old Baltimore neighborhoods, Eastern Shore main streets and Western Maryland towns, all with their five-and-dimes featuring Halloween costumes, holiday d?cor and every imaginable household accoutrement.

There'd be the classic wood-floored Woolworth's on Belair Road in Overlea, where my mother would take me 40 years ago to pop a balloon to determine the price we'd pay for a soda fountain treat. There was the Alameda store, down the way from Epstein's - another classic Baltimore department store long since gone.

At Eudowood, Woolworth's had a gigantic emporium next to which stood the last surviving cafeteria-style restaurant owned by the five-and-ten: Harvest House. Most younger people today don't know what Eudowood is because now everything anywhere near Towson is considered Towson. My Aunt Ella would know: She had two years of open-air tuberculosis therapy at Eudowood Sanitarium close to 70 years ago and hasn't had even a head cold since. She's approaching 90 - and could pass for 65.

The stores not located in shopping centers were always a particular thrill to me. Perhaps I was an old man living in a child's body, but I always loved the Main Street, shopping district, neighborhood feel. That made me quite at home at the Woolworth's in Highlandtown, or on Monument Street.

Later, as I began my television news career, I would occasionally spend a few dollars from my meager young reporter's paycheck on a patty melt and milkshake at the Woolworth's on Salisbury's Downtown Plaza.

And don't make me cry by recalling the huge Woolworth's at Perring Plaza, with the benches, fountain and clock tower outside, and the little birds twittering from their awning nests - while their cousins sang up a storm from cages in the pet department inside. That Woolworth's sat hard by the Korvette's store, the one so big it was about two city blocks long. Back then, builders were just as concerned with grassy plots and resting places as they were about close-by parking spaces.

I am incurably nostalgic, but I get sad when I think that my children are growing up without having ever experienced five-and-tens. In my youth, every shopping district seemed to have not only Woolworth's but two or three other five-and-dimes as well. There was Kresge's, with its distinctive brown-yellow exterior, and McCrory's, and Murphy's, not to mention the family-owned stores. I could tell stories about riding my bike up to the Dixie Five-and-Ten on Harford Road after saving for weeks to buy a new Wiffle ball.

Not everyone had pleasant memories of Woolworth's lunch counters, of course. But by the time I ate my first banana split, six months of demonstrations that began in Greensboro, N.C., had ended segregation at Woolworth's.

Of course, back then you could avoid the bigger stores altogether - what few there were. Wal-Mart was just something we read about from down South, and the "big box" stores hadn't been born. We had Tops and Two Guys, Korvette's and Murphy's Mart. Why all failed and Wal-Mart succeeded is for retail analysts far more intelligent than I to explain.

But we really didn't need the big stores. Whether you were in Hamilton, Highlandtown or Hillendale; West Baltimore, Westminster or Western Maryland; it was still entirely possible to find everything you needed on the same street by stopping in Read's, Irvin's, Young's and Woolworth's, before sitting down for a cheap meal at the White Coffee Pot. Alas, every one of those is gone.

Nevertheless, the past seems to have a strong hold on Baltimoreans, and Marylanders in general. I recall like it was yesterday arguing with my out-of-town news bosses about the importance of making a full-blown story out of the closing of Hess Shoes. They just didn't see the significance of it. My "standup" that day was along York Road below the city-county line, where I pointed out the locations of the long-gone Pop's Toys and Hess and Hamburgers, Silber's Bakery, Read's and Stewart's, and the first "suburban" outpost of Hochschild Kohn. Only when another reporter's story fell through did they allow us to spend a whole two minutes on good old Hess. Clearly, they still didn't get it.

Close to 20 years ago, when Wal-Mart was angling to open its first Maryland store, I went to Prince Frederick in Southern Maryland, where I spent the morning with the manager of a Ben Franklin (yes, a chain store, but a charming one that every small town seemed to have). He walked me down the paper goods aisle.

"See this?" he said, holding up a standard four-pack of toilet paper. "Wal-Mart can sell you this for 30 cents cheaper than I can buy it wholesale."

When the shiny new Wal-Mart out on the bypass opened, they needed traffic officers to keep the peace. I knew then that the future of retail was changing forever before my very eyes.

Which brings me back to my little almanac notebook, and to the closing of Woolworth's. The saddest part of the story? Once Woolworth's was gone, it didn't take long for all the other five-and-tens to give up the fight. Like patients on life support who saw their strongest comrade die and gave up themselves, the McCrory's and McLellan's and Kresge's and G. C. Murphy's were soon gone too, replaced on the retail landscape by dollar stores and gigantic retailers.

All of this was set in motion 10 years ago, when retail districts from Cumberland to Salisbury and Elkton to Leonardtown were changed forever when Woolworth's closed its doors.

Mark A. Vernarelli, a former television news reporter, is now a public information officer and freelance writer. His e-mail is vern35@verizon.net.

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