Remembering The 5 & 10 Cent Store


In 1879, Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first five-and-dime in Utica, New York. The young entrepreneur was only 27 years old and few people expected his fledgling business to succeed. But succeed it did and it paved the way for variety stores everywhere.

By post WWII, Willow Glen was feeling the influx of the post-war family boom. The growing neighborhoods created a need for the variety shop. Independently owned or chain stores, they came to Lincoln avenue to market their wares. Stores such as Franklin’s 5 & 10, Sprouze Ritze, Miltons, The Party House, and Willow Glen’s, mainstay, Bergmann’s, attract the local population.

It is estimated that Americans spent upwards of $300 million on kids Western ware and paraphernalia during the TV cowboy era of the 1950s.Roy Rogers and Hop-Along Casiddy vests, holsters, fancy six shooters, spurs cowboy hats, neckerchiefs, and wristwatches. Day Crockett hats and Lone ranger masks filled the toy counters.

Today’s kids like to spend their time browsing the web on the family computer, or hanging out at the shopping mall. As a kid growing up in Willow Glen did our hanging ourt and our browsing at the local five and dime store. We didn’t have the shopping mall to run to and we didn’t have computers to search the web, but what we did have were some friendly merchants who welcomed us with our dimes and nickels. It was kids’ favorite pass time, deciding how to spend our allowance at the dime store. It usually took about an hour to spend a buffalo-head nickel and two Mercury head dimes. A quarter went a long way in those days. Heck, we could buy a pack of chewing gum a chocolate bar and a kite and still get change…. 15 cents bought us two rubber balls, three packs of baseball cards or three boxes of candy cigarettes.

Browsing through the new merchandise was the fun part. slinkys, balls and jacks, marbles , plastic bubble pipes, rubber snakes and spiders, balsa wood airplanes,sling shots, yo-yos and kaleidoscopes were scattered loosely in big bins, available to the touch. It was hands-on shopping back then, and kids were allowed to feel, touch and evaluate every toy before purchase. It was the 1940s and hermetically sealed packaging hadn’t; reared its ugly head, yet. There was nothing to impede our touch.

Mrs. Milton, a lovely lady with thick, snowy white hair ran the Milton 5 & 10. She made it a special place for us kids to shop. Mrs. Milton always kept a bowl of pennies by the cash register, just in case one of her young customers didn’t have the “plus tax” needed for the purchase. It was that way in most of the early shops; the owners and clerks set a standard of caring for their customers that still endures this day. Clerks such as Helen Stickles, who worked at the local Franklin 5&10, offered her customers the lay-away plan. Though we didn’t have credit cards, and most of us had never heard of them, we did have a thing called “lay-away”. It was the answer to a housewife’s prayer. If we wanted something and we didn’t have the money for it, we could ask Helen to put it away in the back room for weeks, even months, until it was paid for. It was the only way to purchase things with money you didn’t have, yet.

I remember a pair of roller skates I bought at Franklin’s. It took me forever to save the money, but when I finally got them on, and sailed over my neighborhood sidewalks, I felt I was skating on sunbeams. That little skate key may have been small, no bigger than the palm of my hand, but it brought me a world of pleasure and independence. It was my favorite piece of jewelry, and I wore it with pride around my neck .

These corner shops were fine and dandy for us kids to spend our weekly allowance in, but when it came Christmas shopping, well, that was something else. BERGMANN’S was the one and only store of choice. Mostly because Bergmann’s had the largest variety of toys and the biggest display windows on Lincoln Avenue. Come Christmas time, those windows enticed the neighborhood kids like fairies to sugarplums. Bergman’s added an upstairs floor, just to house all the toys. Come Christmas, Bergmann’s windows, steamed by the breath of curious kids, displayed the most popular toys in the country, among them the Lionel Super Chief. The train ran ’round and ’round the figure eight track, begging every boy who saw it to take it home. Alexander dolls, Red Ryder beebee guns and Steiff teddy bears were just a few of the quality toys filling the upstairs shelves. Evan Santa made a yearly appearance in the grand toy department handing out candy canes and holiday cheer. For many of us, who knew the clerks that worked there for over twenty-five years, shopping at Berrgmanss was one of Willow Glen’s nicest traditions.

Conrad Bergman, like his predecessor, Frank Woolworth, knew the benefits of having a soda shop on the store premises. Part of the fun of shopping day at Bergman’s was the lunch counter.. Slurping an effervescent strawberry float or munching on a burger and fries was a shopping treat for moms and kids alike.

Further down Lincoln Avenue, near the Garden Theater, was the Sprouse-Reitz store. This 5 & 10 was popular with the whole family, as it sold, among its many items, a Saber jigsaw, ($9) fabric, (25cents a yard) hair brushes (50 cents each). Local teens from Willow Glen High and Edwin Markham Jr. High shopped for the latest fads: White vinyl jackets, fluorescent shoe laces, glitter nail polish, decal tattoos, white lipstick, ankle bracelets, scarves, pop-beads and popular autograph hounds.

By the 1960s, the urban sprawl had begun. To accommodate expanding towns and cities, the shopping mall was born. The old-fashioned five-and-dime, as we once knew it, was eventually lost. These shops, like the famous Woolworth Chain, are now relegated to a new classification, that of nostalgic memory.

Today, the closest things we have to the variety shop in the community are stores such as Rite-Aid, Longs, and Walgreen’s. Like the stores of yesterday, these shops offer the customer a friendly smile and clerks that have worked there for years, such as Palma Nicoles the stores mainstay cashier. These shops offer customers a large variety of goods at an inexpensive price. A place we can shop with out pulling out that ol’ charge card. And where we can find an item for under a dollar, just like the good ol’ days.

These drug stores fill a void and continue a tradition set forth years ago by Lawrence’s Drugs, Lincoln avenue Drugs, W.G Pharmacy and Family Pharmacy. Stores that not only sold us our prescriptions but offer customers a variety of cosmetics and personal merchandise at thrifty prices.

Today, some 50 years later, the Willow Glen business district continues to offer kids and parents a wide varity of shops that reflect our area’s tradiions and its unique style and economic blending.

DIME STORE DREAMS by Anthony Curci

Jeans rolled up half way to my knee

Hopalong Cassidy Tee shirt

that was me.

Friday night locked in my room

with my trusted old butter knife

gonna break the bank soon

go to the closet

get my piggy bank

knife in the slot and give it a good yank.

Put the piggy back fast as can be

pick up the money hurriedly

go to bed just in time

money in my pocket,

all mine.

Tomorrow gonna spend it at the five and dime.

FIVE AND DIME by Antohony Curci

Walking in a Five and Dime

a magical place of the time

a musty smell you couldn’t ignore

soon as you entered the door

comic books hanging all over the place

boxes stacked on hardwood floor

aisles and aisles

of trinkets galore

this magical place has long since passed with time

along with it’s name

the Five and Dime

Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a “Remember When” column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of “Mother’s Miracle” books ( Morrow books).

She has a short story in the new book “ELVIS”, Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman’s World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.

Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L’italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.