What is a Five and Dime?
Old-style lunch counter at a five and dime
Five and Dimes
An article in the local newspaper about the impending final days of a once-proud Canadian retailer started me down memory lane, a place I seem to hang out more and more as I get older.
The background on the story...the U.S. investor who owns Zellers' parent company Hudson’s Bay Company (another sad tale) sold the leases on all of the Zellers department stores en masse to Target Stores back in January 2011. Since then, Target has been busy converting the best of the Zellers' properties to Target stores.
Now, I have never been in a Target store in my life, so I don’t really have an opinion about what sort of retailer they are. And, I am a firm supporter of free enterprise. It isn’t even the demise of Zellers in particular that made me feel nostalgic. What had me reminiscing were the memories of those wonderful little five and dimes.
Shopping with Mom
These wonderful stores were a destination when I was a kid. Shopping back then was an event, and you actually dressed up to go shopping. Today, we whip out of the house in our dirty sweats when we need to buy something. But back then, you got dressed up. Mom even had a particular hat she liked to wear when we went shopping. It was a little pillbox number with feathers on it. I didn’t need to wear my hat (that was for church), but she made sure my shoes were clean and whatever I had on was neatly pressed.
Mom and I would go “into the city” to shop once or twice a month back then. Taking the bus was such fun, and Mom would point out the same landmarks on every journey, on the way there and on the way back. It didn’t matter. I loved it all and felt oh so grown up to be on the bus.
We had our favorites for both shopping and eating, and after doing some browsing we would have some lunch. The Honey Dew, Freiman’s Department Store and Ogilvy, all were places we loved to go. Ah, but the five and dime was a particular favorite, and none was better at the time than Woolworth's.
Der Bingle singing "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten cent store)"
The Five and Dime
The whole five and dime concept was started by Woolworth Brothers back in 1879. Frank Winfield Woolworth, whose initials later appeared as part of the store name, opened his very first successful five and dime in Lancaster PA. The idea back then was that everything in the store cost either 5 cents or ten cents. As the years went by, the reality of that had to change of course, but these stores were places where you could find the most wonderful treasures and knick knacks you didn’t even know you needed.
There were regional “five and tens” as well, but the Woolworth name became synonymous with the variety store concept. S. S. Kresge and Company morphed into Kmart, while Walton’s Five and Dime became the giant Wal-Mart. The F.W. Woolworth chain ceased operation in 1997, more than one hundred years after its inception.
Greensboro sit-in lunch counter
The Lunch Counter at the Five and Dime
I’m sure by now that someone has written a book about lunch counters. The lunch counter in five and dimes all over America became a place where folks could get a decent meal – often a cup of coffee and a sandwich – for 5 cents during the Depression.
As the years went by, the lunch counter became a place where “respectable” women could go unescorted by a man and eat without having to endure disapproving stares. Lunch counters also became flash points for change, and when four young African-American men sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro NC in 1960 and politely asked to be served, it started a six-month peaceful sit-in that forced Woolworth to desegregate its counter.
Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
As a kid of course, I had no idea about any of that stuff. To me, the lunch counter at Woolworth’s was the best part of shopping. Well, make that second best after the malt stand in Freiman’s basement, but that wasn’t really lunch. I always had my favorite grilled cheese sandwich. It was served perfectly hot, with gooey cheese of a color of orange that doesn’t occur in nature, with fries and a nice crunchy dill pickle. Mom always started her lunch with a coffee – “bottomless cup” in those days – and she always asked me to open the little paper pyramids that held the cream, as she never could manage to open those without squirting cream all over.
Mom seemed to know everyone there too. All of the waitresses were super friendly. And whoever happened to be sitting on the stool beside Mom became her new best friend. She was always chatting to strangers, and by the time lunch was done they would have discovered that they had friends in common or both came from “up home”.
I have seen the future and it is Starbucks
The newspaper article that started all of this reminiscing also mentioned that, during renovations of the former Zellers store, Target intended to replace the space occupied by the much-loved lunch counter with…a Starbucks.
Now I ask you, will Starbucks ever feed the soul like a lunch counter did? Or be an agent for social change? I think not.