January 2011 Issue
The Five-and-Dime: A Love Story
The merchandise was mundane and exotic, practical and fanciful, but these emporiums fed our dreams.
I am a son of Sebastian Spering Kresge. Frank Winfield Woolworth raised me.
I will never forget the sights, fluorescent lights glowing like Ali Baba’s treasure room on the other side of the fogged plate glass window of the neighborhood dime store.
I remember budgies squawking in the Amazon of the pet department, and goldfish you carried home in a white paper carton, like Chinese takeout.
I can still conjure the smells: Evening in Paris perfume mingling with the aroma of grilled cheese from the lunch counter.
It is hard to explain a five-and-dime to someone whose childhood was not built around one. You could find, in that one small store, a bacon and tomato sandwich, fishing line, percale bedsheets and a plumber’s wrench. You could buy cookware that would last a generation and a sack of bridge mix candy that wouldn’t survive the walk home.
We did not buy. Our parents sweated in mills, worked assembly lines, flipped burgers in cafes outside the plant gates. Life was a shaky tightrope stretched between paydays. But for an 8-year-old, just looking was better than Christmas. I did not even have to sit on a fat man’s knee.
I remember seeing a doll that talked, and thinking science was an amazing thing. I recall a doll that wet, and I thought sometimes technology could go too far.
Lady clerks prowled the scuffed linoleum, law and order in orthopedic shoes. I looked guilty, I suppose, because I was. Looking at the balsa gliders, I flew with the Blue Angels. Watching pet turtles climb plastic islands in a tap-water sea, I sailed the Caribbean with Captain Blood. I had my eye on a six-shooter cap pistol. The ammunition came from Kilgore Inc. in Westerville, Ohio, and I imagined a place where cowpokes slammed through saloon doors and a marshal kept the peace from behind a tin star.
I survived my last crush and my first kiss in those aisles. I lived through moon landings and “Space Rock” by the Baskerville Hounds, through fifth grade math and Three Dog Night, tempted by a thousand open-faced turkey sandwiches.
I do not recall where I was when they closed our dime store — the mall, probably. As teenagers we cruised Zayre’s and Giant Tiger, and squealed our tires in the Gold Circle parking lot. I did not even attend the five-and-dime’s funeral.
People say dollar stores are the new five-and-dimes, but I do not want my memories adjusted for inflation. I hear there are still Giant Tigers in Canada, but walking through one would not be the same. My legs are longer now. I am used to disappointment. I have been to Westerville, and while it is a fine town I did not see any gunslingers facing off on South Main. Maybe I was just there on the wrong day.
The dime store should be one of those places that time washes away forever, but it is not so. I will be visiting a corner of the state, just talking with folks, and they’ll point out where the Woolworth used to be. People visit the Ben Franklin in Shelby again in their stories, and just smile.
The dime store was not wonderland. For a generation of Ohioans it was just a place to dream, and even if the dreams seemed to end at the ladies unmentionables aisle, it was enough for us, as children. What I took away was better than anything wrapped in pretty paper.
I learned that you could be poor and not be humble. That an imagination was a finer thing to inherit than a trust fund. That longing is often sweeter than actually getting. The dime store was just the door to a world that did not end at a plant gate.
Looking at the reflection in the dime store window, I saw myself.
John Hyduk is a freelance writer based in Fairview Park.