A Trip to the Dime Store

Keep Calm and Go ShoppingOne of Mother’s favorite places to shop was  the dime store. She loved Kresge’s and Woolworth because they were places filled with all kinds of junk for a fairly reasonable price.

Dime stores, also known as five-and-ten-cent stores and variety stores, began in the late nineteenth century and developed into a major sector of U.S. retailing. However, changes in shopping patterns and new forms of retailing in the 1970s and 1980s caused the virtual demise of dime stores by the early 1990s. The dime store format also provided the impetus for some of the first chain stores and became an important outlet for American mass-manufactured merchandise.

Frank Winfield Woolworth, the father of dime stores, learned the concept while running a five-cent booth in the store of William Moore in Watertown, New York. In 1879, Woolworth opened his first store in Utica, New York. That store failed, but his second store, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, succeeded, and by 1899 he owned fifty-four stores. Woolworth eliminated the wholesaler and also entered into a buying arrangement with other store operators across the country. After a merger with these chains in 1911, the F. W. Woolworth Company became the dominant variety store chain in the United States and Great Britain.

Fuschia yarnOnce in the dime store, Mother especially loved the “notions department.” She would always ask in her bigger than life voice

Where is your notions department? And, do you carry fuschia thread?

She liked to play “Stump the Help” and always came up with some inane request that made them earn their measly salary.

My sister Abby and I would escape the moment we were able and look around for things that interested us. We enjoyed watching the nuts go around on a revolving dish with a bright light shining down to keep them warm, enticing the customers with their possible freshness. We never had enough money to buy them but told ourselves that one day we would buy all the nuts we wanted, especially the jumbo cashews.

Shoe-fitting FluoroscopeMy sister and I also took great joy in using the “Shoe-fitting Fluoroscope”, a staple of nearly every dime store during our childhood. Since these machines were banned many years ago, you may not be familiar with the concept or the mechanism itself. Basically, the “Fluoroscope” was an X-ray machine that was a metal construction covered in wood approximately 4 feet high in the shape of a short column.

There was a ledge with an opening where one of us would place our feet in the opening provided and while remaining in a standing position, look through a viewing porthole at the top of the fluoroscope down at the x-ray view of the feet and shoes.

Two other viewing portholes on either side enabled the other one of us to observe our toes being wiggled to show how much room for the toes there was inside the shoe. The bones of the feet were clearly visible, as was the outline of the shoe, including the stitching around the edges.

Then we would laugh hysterically and exchange positions, watching the other’s feet being X-rayed. How we both avoided getting cancer from these repeated exposures to X-rays is a mystery to this day.

The primary component of a shoe-fitting x-ray unit was the fluoroscope which consisted essentially of an x-ray tube mounted near the floor and wholly or partially enclosed in a shielded box and a fluorescent screen. The x-rays penetrated the shoes and feet and then struck the fluorescent light. This resulted in an image of the feet within the shoes.

The radiation hazards associated with shoe fitting x-ray units were recognized as early as 1950. The machines were often out of adjustment and were constructed so radiation leaked into the surrounding area.

By 1970, shoe fitting x-ray units had been banned in 33 states including Minnesota and strict regulation in the remaining 17 states made their operation impractical.

After the fun of nuking our feet a few dozen times, I always then found my way to the grab bag area and began shaking them. If Mother caught me messing with the grab bags, she would begin her usual bellowing:

Put that down this minute!  You know we don’t have money to throw away on trash like that!  What is wrong with you?

I mostly ignored the chastising and knew the next time I had the fifty cents to spend, I would make a beeline to the dime store to fulfill my fantasy. Abby liked looking at the magazines and makeup. Once in a great while, Mother would allow us to buy something. But never a grab bag!

Bias TapeOnce she had exhausted the sales clerk in the notions department and bought some totally unnecessary items like poppy seed filling and bias tape and a chartreuse zipper, away we went. She would rattle and scrunch her paper sack in her hands until the noise almost drove Abby and me insane. We knew not to say anything as she did not take kindly to criticism.

Over the years, the fate of Mother’s beloved dime stores changed:

Soon the variety stores’ business declined because they lost their advantage in all of the major merchandise classifications they once dominated. Other forms of retailing took away their hegemony as the dime stores failed to compete effectively. They lost the stationery business to the new home office stores. Growing shoe chains, such as Payless, Thom McAn, and Kinney Shoes (owned by Woolworth), grabbed the low-price shoe business. Drug stores, particularly deep-discount drug stores, captured the toiletries business. Discount stores and toy chains, such as Toys ‘R’ Us and KB Toys, captured the toy business. Grocery stores and drug stores took over the candy business. The notions business went to fabric stores and became a victim of cultural changes.

Woolworth closed its last dime store in 1997. By the early twentieth century, the McCrory Corporation, under the ownership of Meshulam Riklis, owned many of the famous names but operated only 160 stores.

The growth of malls and discount stores and the demise of downtown shopping centers took away the foot traffic that dime stores needed to survive. Inflation took away the five-and-ten-cent prices. The variety stores left to others the concept of dollar stores, which prospered in free-standing, neighborhood locations, while downtown shopping and dime stores faded away. In 2001, Dollar General had 2,734 stores, and Dollar Tree had 1,732 stores. These dollar stores could be considered the dime stores of the twenty-first century, adjusted by inflation to contemporary price levels.

But back in the “glory days” of the dime store, Mother took great joy in visiting them. And inevitably, upon our return home, mother would be exhausted and would take to her chair for some liquid refreshment, a pack of smokes and an “aspirin” for her headache. After all, spending the afternoon with your children can be exhausting!

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