by Paul Rule
The inauguration and lots of economic news have hogged the spotlight lately. Maybe that’s why the passing of a cultural institution went nearly unnoticed last month. Early January saw the closing of the last of the original Woolworths stores. 800-plus outlets in the U.K. employing more than 30,000 people bit it.
The British operation, no longer a subsidiary of the American company, outlived the North American stores by more than a decade. The U.S. Woolworth company has gone through a number of changes and now soldiers on as a specialty store operator called Foot Locker, Inc.
In my parents’ youth, Woolworths were a big deal. Most towns worth their salt had at least one Woolworths dime store. (As a sad commentary on what’s happened to our money, the stores closest to that format now usually are called dollar stores.) There were a multitude of competitors, Kresges, Grants, Newberrys to name a few. But Woolworths seemed to define the category. The Woolworth Building, opened in 1913 to house their headquarters, was one of New York’s first skyscrapers and still is among the city’s tallest.
The classic variety stores never adjusted to the shift in retailing from central business districts to malls and strip centers. They were lost somewhere between the ultra-low-priced, limited-selection dollar stores and the big box operators such as Walmart. Woolworths tried with Woolco discount stores but couldn’t seem to get the hang of it, and the Woolcos closed.
Woolworths and their direct competitors were more than present-day dollar stores – larger, with a greater range of merchandise. And there was the food service. Most had a lunch counter/café operation where generations of downtown workers went for a moderate-priced lunch. I was among the millions of kids who knew that good behavior on a family shopping trip could be rewarded with a lunch counter stop for a killer chocolate milkshake or an earth-shattering banana split.
A Woolworths lunch operation could even be a tourist attraction. Wichita, Kansas claimed to have a Woolworths with the longest lunch counter in the world. Once on a business trip I stopped in just to see it for myself. It was awesome. Multiple Cub Scout troops could have been served milkshakes all at once at the stools of that monument to short-order cookery.
In 1960 another Woolworths had a more profound effect on society. At a Greensboro, North Carolina store four African-American college students couldn’t see how it was fair that they had to stand while eating and couldn’t sit down and be served like people whose skin color happened to be different. So they sat down at Woolworths lunch counter to seek the food service to which they and all other well-behaved human beings should be entitled. A little bit of action that helped touch off a lot of needed change in America.
Time passes and times change. Woolworths and other eateries got their acts together on racial matters. And in the same month we said goodbye to the last Woolworths and we said hello to the first African-American U.S. President.
Paul Rule is President of Marquest Media Research.