Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, August 19, 1997

Demise of Woolworth’s
stirs memories

IN Tennyson's poem a dying King Arthur pronounced: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

Woolworth's was already in its 40s in the 1920s when I was starting to spend precious pennies, nickels and dimes there. Now it is 118 and closing all its U.S. stores, though foreign operations will continue.

Woolworth's in York, Pa., was in a lineup with competitors it outlasted. Woolworth's, McCrory's, W.T. Grant and Kresge's were cheek to jowl in a block just off the main square. We had three big department stores nearby but the five-and-dimes got most of my business as a youngster.

My brother, whose memory is a source of many details, and I shopped all of them regularly with allowances I recall at 25 cents a week and money we got from selling magazine subscriptions and from peddling "Snowballs, a cent apiece!" from a chunk of ice in our wagon.

We neither knew nor cared that the very first Woolworth had opened in 1879 in the city of Lancaster, only 22 miles east. The chain grew to 2,850 stores worldwide, but was down to 400 in the U.S., 13 of them in Hawaii, when it began close-out operations July 17.

We loved the tremendous variety Woolworth's made available, bought penny candies there and sometimes spent a nickel for cards and valentines for our parents. Brother Dick recalls the offered items were almost all laid out horizontally in labeled compartmentalized counters rather than stacked as today. We paid at separate cash registers under generic names like Notions, Sundries, etc.

At a piano-equipped music counter off to the side one could select a sheet of music and a clerk would play a few bars. Maybe this inspired the musical hit "I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store." A pet section offered fish and birds.

The lunch counter had its special smells. None of us suspected another Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., would wind up in the Smithsonian because four black students sat down there in 1960 to challenge segregation. Blacks sat at ours. But we were "up North."

Right up to the end, Woolworth stores in Hawaii have hung onto many of the characteristics that make me nostalgic.

They have been familiar in a changing world. I loved them but not enough of us patronized them often enough.

Instead we shifted to Longs, Price-Costco and other relative upstarts with new concepts just as earlier five-and-tens drew people away from plantation stores. F.W. Woolworth nationwide lost $37 million last year. The two I patronized most, downtown on Fort Street and at Kahala Mall, were seldom crowded until their closeout sales started.

Somewhere here is a lesson for Hawaii, where too many people still think we can do business the same old way. In both public and private business this is a ticket to oblivion.

GLOBALISM, computer technology, shopping malls, category-buster stores and niche stores have retailing in a continuing flux. Only the alert can keep up. It is great for consumers, tough on competitors.

Sears has grown strong while Montgomery Ward has languished because it better read the tides of change and refocused itself on service and specialty lines, like women's apparel to keep the Wal-Marts and Kmarts from taking away its customers.

McDonald's, once a startling new fast-food concept where many of us waited in long lines, now is a mature business nibbled at by many rivals.

King Arthur spoke of a changing order in much slower times but his shocking idea that one good custom could corrupt the world still captures the need for continuing evolution.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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