Ah, the five and dime. That quintessential piece of the city growing up: Woolworths, HL Greens, Grant’s. All were pretty much the same though some had pet departments, and two levels and others had luncheon counters and sold furniture (a kind of furniture anyway). The floors were black and white tiled, the ceilings were tin with great big fans, eternally and slowly rotating the popcorn-scented air. The merchandise cabinets were wood with glass fronts. They were thought to be the cheapest stores available, but I daresay if they were around today they would look like Nordstroms compared to a WalMart. The great thing about going to them as a kid was the odds were Mom would actually buy me something I wanted because it would probably only set her back thirty-nine cents. I remember 14th Street in Manhattan as a shopping mecca; not the home of the “uptown stores like Macys or Gimbels, or even Korvette’s, but a collection of stores for the working and lower classes. It had all the five and dime chains as well as some independently owned beauties. Walking from West to East, you would start to see them around Seventh Avenue and from there on, there was one after the other. Mom would shop on 14th Street pretty frequently, times being what they were, though I never paid any attention to what she was buying, probably material for curtains, or a butter dish. Me I couldn’t wait to get to the toy department (all of them devoted a good amount of square footage to kids interests, knowing full well how profitable cheap plastic toys could be). At the time I was really into dinosaurs; I read about them, drew them, stared for hours at their skeletons at the Museum of Natural History, and generally wanted to meet one day (Mom kept telling me that wasn’t possible but I proved her wrong when I saw a moving Triceratops at the World’s Fair). Anyway each week it became a kind of tradition for her to allow me to pick out one plastic dinosaur. One week it was a T-Rex, the next Diplodocus, then Brontosaurus, Ankylosaurus, and a Stegosaurus; I collected them all and had quite the plastic menagerie, and you guessed it I wish I had them still (though Leslie wouldn’t agree).
Then, of course, there was John’s Bargain Store, another chain that at its height had over 500 stores on the East Coast. I guess it was a forerunner of stores like K-Mart and Target. It had huge bins of everything from shoes to shaving cream, from shirts to slacks and people would paw through the bins in search of the very best of whatever it was they were featuring that week. It could get quite competitive at times if more than a few people were fishing for the best same thing. But that was part of the adventure I guess. It was one of those stores that seem to be eternally going out of business; huge signs heralding it’s impending demise were plastered on the front windows, and it took about thirty years for it to finally close its doors.
Next up was Lane’s Department Store, a small ladies clothing store that Mom loved. Needless to say, I was not the best shopping companion for Mom when we went there, but I was a good boy having been bribed by the promise of a plastic dinosaur at the next store.
Once we hit 5th Avenue on our excursion, the stores got a little bigger.
First, there was May’s Department store, a, for the time, modern looking shopping destination, with departments devoted to clothing, sporting goods, electronics, records, household goods, furniture, pretty much everything you would expect to see in a comprehensive Department store. May’s was the new kid on the block then, sitting just one block away from S.Klein which had been in the neighborhood for years before. It was officially called S. Klein On the Square, a nice play on the fact that they offered square deals and in fact were located across from Union Square. Their iconic sign was a neon Carpenter’s Square, further solidifying their marketing campaign. I think it still exists somewhere, in some museum in a small town. They positioned themselves as having everything you could find at the uptown stores but at greatly reduced prices. They had the most fascinating wooden escalators that I loved to ride on (one of the first stores to have them) and the building itself was iconic, being the former Union Square Hotel.
And of course being New York, there arose a healthy competition between the two stores, with loyal followings for both. Mom wasn’t very partisan thankfully so we were able to shop at both and get the best of the already low prices.
Somehow, however, I remember always winding up back at John’s Bargain Store after checking out the wares at the other stores. Nothing beats bin shopping for a cost-conscious New Yorker. There was that great sense of winning when you grabbed something from deep in the bowels of a huge wire bin, and it was even better if you grabbed it a split second before the shopper to you left reached for the same exact item. Score.
You worked for this stuff; no simple sitting on a shelf where you could just pick it up and put it in your shopping cart.
No, here you fought for what you got.
And what is more New York than that?