“They Look Just Like Humans, at Kresge’s and Woolworth’s…”

Dropping in on Ricki’s Rants and Rambles, I noticed that in her Memorial Day post, she said:

We wore our uniforms, most of us got to carry small flags, and, as part of the traditional flag etiquette (or at least, that’s what the troop leader told us), we needed to get white gloves to wear. I still remember going to the little local department store – yes, such things still existed when I was a kid – with my mom and buying a pair.

When I read that bit, I was reminded of the little local department stores of my own childhood. Admittedly, they were chain stores even by then — I only remember one independent “five-and-dime”, one suburb over from my own, but I do remember the Ben Franklin store about three-quarters of a mile from my house. I think I bought my first “real” (i.e., non-Disney) album there, and I bought some singles there as well.

Because I was an unusual kid, I knew even then that these places felt kind of dated — Nashville was beginning to sprout malls, and I figured that would take a toll on the Ben Franklins and Roses Stores where my grandparents would take me. Other local chains, like Cain-Sloan and Castner Knott (which were absorbed into Dillard’s and Macy’s, respectively) were places I saw more as adult territory, places I’d go only to get school clothes or have the occasional breakfast with Santa.

And although Wallace Stevens probably never intended “Death is the mother of beauty” to apply to lower-echelon retailers, living through the disappearance of these places has bred in me a strange delight when I still find such a place. One of the cooler moments of my adolescence was when I attended Western Kentucky University the summer before my senior year of high school. It was a wonderful summer for many reasons, but one was that, as I walked around Bowling Green, KY one Saturday morning, I found the “downtown” Woolworth’s, wandered in, and discovered that it had a soda fountain/grille. I hadn’t been to such a place since my grandmother had worked at an old-school drugstore in Nashville. I sat down at the counter, ordered a chocolate ice cream soda, and felt like I was in a Ray Bradbury story, or some strange sequel to “Jeffty Is Five“. When I wrote to my parents about it, I remember telling them that the only thing that kept it from being 1962 (or 52, or 42…) was the toy department immediately behind me. But if I looked straight ahead or to my left or right, I could sustain the illusion.

Likewise, I’ll always have fond memories of a different Woolworth’s luncheonette, this one in Lexington, KY, where I went a few times with a girlfriend in the late 80s. At this one, we sat in a booth, doing the two-straws-in-one-soda bit. Doo-wop.

And I think that’s one of the things I love about Mondoville — we still have such a store, even without a lunch counter or record section. I go there occasionally, and although it isn’t really the same, if I squint my eyes a little, and my mind a little more, I can see my younger self, looking hungrily at the toys before being dragged off to someplace with a Husky section. And that’s pretty cool.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to “They Look Just Like Humans, at Kresge’s and Woolworth’s…”

  1. I got my first album at Ben Franklin, too – The Early Beatles! Shake it up, baby…


  2. Jeff says:

    My version of this was a Sears out by the nearest highway interchange in New Jersey. I bought my first LP there (the Beach Boys compilation “Endless Summer”). They had a candy counter, a repair shop, a catalog counter, and a tobacco store. Although it’s much changed inside, the store is still there, surrounded by newer, fresher fast-food joints and retail stores. When I drive past, I often feel as if I’ve spotted a small piece of a Roman wall next to a busy European highway.

  3. PonderingPilgrim says:

    Woolworth’s is where I bought all of my Matchbox cars as a kid. It was right next door (or perhaps down the block, my memory is fuzzy on this) to the JC Penny’s that had a main floor, a basement, and a half-floor upstairs. Both buildings were built in the late 19th century.

  4. Sandy says:

    Some of my fondest memories are of taking a taxi to Richmond (we lived in Virginia Beach) to Woolworth’s and eating lunch at the lunch counter there with my Aunt Bert. She was my best friend, grandmother, and aunt all rolled up into one. And, also was quite the character. The reason for the taxi was because in all of her 81 years she never drove a car.

  5. Fudd says:

    Haven’t been inside there for probably 30 years (my mom used to give me $5 to spend whenever I visited the dentist) but it should be noted that Bethel, OH still has a Ben Franklin store – still billed as a 5 – 10, although I’m guessing in any purchase that means dollars…even though I still teach near, I only pass that way once or twice a year – passed by it this weekend on the way to a graduation party, and noticed while it still stood, and the sign was stained with brown streaks from years of rain and no paint, it still seemed somehow right that it was still open and operating…

  6. Pingback: Proto-Big Box | Professor Mondo

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