From My Window
Five and Dime
By Jane Thibodeau Martin,
I have done a lot of long-distance driving the last few years. As I look out the car window, one of the things I notice is how even tiny little rural towns, from Wisconsin down to Texas, have a store called some variation of "Dollar." A cross-roads town may have one gas station/convenience store, one church, one diner, and not much else; but if it has the first three businesses it probably has a "Dollar" variant store.
For a while I found this rather perplexing until I remembered that this niche has always existed in small town America, but by other names. It was one of my "Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious" or BGO's, that these dollar store chain fills the role that used to be occupied by stores like "Ben Franklin."
So a little journey down memory lane for those of you who are around my age or older; and a little local history for you young folks.
Peshtigo had a Ben Franklin on Main Street for many years. The inventory was similar to what Dollar type stores carry now " notions, odds and ends, basic groceries and home supplies, and even a few items of clothing. If you were desperate for a child's birthday party gift; if you forgot the paper plates for your picnic; or you just moved into your first apartment and needed inexpensive kitchen utensils and a waste basket, they got you covered, and without a long drive. I have many fond memories of the Peshtigo Ben Franklin " they had a very large penny candy section, and your choices were bagged up in tiny little brown paper bags. You could go in with a quarter and come out with a generous single-serving bag of potato chips; a nice-sized candy bar; and five pieces of penny candy for that coin. The clerks probably got pretty irritated by the line of children agonizing over their choices, and conducting these endless small transactions at the register.
Ben Franklin was a family chain, like most of the original department stores and five and dimes. It was founded in 1877 by a family named Butler, and at one time there were more than 2500 stores in the U.S. Famous retailer Sam Walton got his start at a Ben Franklin. The chain went through bankruptcy in 1996-7 and what is left is now owned by Promotions Unlimited headquartered in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, interestingly enough. There are about 118 stores left under the original name, with ten of those stores in Wisconsin. I remember there being a Ben Franklin in Peshtigo, Oconto, and Oconto Falls, and there were probably more in and close to the Marinette County area. I do not remember when the Peshtigo store went out of business, but I am sure it was deeply missed when it did.
Marinette had a store that sort of filled the void between Lauerman's powerhouse department store and a Ben Franklin. It was on Main Street only a block or so away from Lauerman's. It was called "Woolworth's." A man named Frank Woolworth started the stores in 1879 and at one time it was the biggest and most successful five and dime chain in the U.S. It went totally out of business in the United States in 1997 but apparently there are still some stores under this name in Europe. My childhood recollection of the store is it was a little bit bigger and maybe higher quality than a Ben Franklin, but with similar merchandise selections; but it also had a lunch counter, much like the one Lauerman's had. There was a soda fountain with a counter and stools for seating, and a couple of booths up in front where you could look out at Main Street and watch the traffic and pedestrians pass by. (If you want a real hoot, you can actually see the images of the Woolworth's menu, featuring 80 cent hamburger platters with fries and "tulip sundaes" for 35 cents, by googling "Woolworth's lunch counter menu.") It's fascinating. Woolworth's is famous in civil rights circles for a historic protest in Greensboro, N.C. when four black Americans tried to sit at the segregated lunch counter. (A good history lesson for all of us to reflect on such a discriminatory rule.) One of my favorite regular buys at Woolworth's was three 45 r.p.m. single records for a dollar.
If you went a little further along Main Street on the same side, there was a store called "The Bell Store," which sounds like another family name. I could find nothing at all on the internet on the Bell Store but I know I am correct about the name. That probably means it was local only, and never became a chain. I recently unpacked my 32 year old wedding gown, preparatory to sending it to a store that specializes in supplying brides with limited income wedding dresses. My dress was carefully packed in many sheets of blue tissue paper in a big cardboard box by the cleaner who took care of it the week after my wedding, and the box it was in had the Bell Store name and address on it. I recall that store has having very high ceilings, with a second floor at the very end of the building which is where the clerks sat and made change and issued hand-written receipts for the sales staff down below. The merchandise was displayed in racks but also on top of lots of large, square or rectangular tables at waist height. It reminded me of Lauerman's only smaller and more focused on clothing without the additional departments Lauerman's had, like furniture and hardware. I also remember it had an "air" about it which caused small children like me to understand a level of decorum was expected if you were in there, and if you didn't demonstrate that, your mother could expect "the look" from a clerk. Back in those days there was no background music in stores so if you raised your voice even a tiny bit, it got noticed.
For those of you curious about Lauerman's an author named Michael Leannah wrote an affectionate book about that locally famous store called "Something for Everybody." If you were a customer of Lauerman's with fond memories of the elevator operator, you might enjoy reading it. I know for many years there was an active social network of people who worked at Lauerman's during its heyday, and that got together frequently to reminisce. I find that charming.
So while Wolworth's five and dime and Lauerman's department store are long gone; and Ben Franklin is just a remnant of what it once was, the Dollar variant stores give us a local option without a long drive and without doing on-line shopping. The way the retail industry changes, someday our own children may remember the Dollar variant stores the same sentimental way I remember the local stores of the late 50's and very early 60's, although to me the dollar stores have none of the charms I remember.
You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.
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