You can be as old as I am – 67 – and still be age 12 when you step into the 2010 version of a 5&10-cent store. You can have $200 in your pocket but again feel the wonder of what a quarter might buy in this magical palace.
Once, every downtown had a 5&10, sometimes two. Usually there was the omnipresent Woolworth’s where in my grandparents’ time, many items did, indeed, sell for a nickel or a dime. In the 1950s, in Spring Valley, N.Y., at the Consolidated 5&10, 25 cents and up was more likely.
Nyack, a nearby village, had two dime stores, and each was set up in honorable, cherished fashion. Double entry doors to the right, double exit to the left. Railroad flat floor plan, a shotgun drive in a long room. Wooden floors once varnished but never again. Islands of counters with 5-inch glass walls, goods spread neatly.
(An odd thing about those counters. They never seemed messy, even on a sale day when dish towels, for example, might be on special at 10 cents per. Maybe consumers were neater then. Today, in major department stores, counters without glass walls but with originally well-stacked piles of say, shirts, soon become jungles of goods in disarray.)
In the old 5&10, hardware items were usually toward the back of the store, and that’s where I headed. Once, with 25 cents in hand, probably a quarter from my grandmother, I could not wait until Boy Scout Troop 13 had finished its Friday night meeting at the Dutch Reformed Church so that I could get over to Consolidated, zoom down the long aisle to the right, back to the last glass-walled counter and then to the small bottles of turpentine. I got one for 19 cents, no tax, and once out of the store and on my walk home to Hillcrest, I opened it up to get the pine smell. The next day it was used on a wood-working project in my parents’ unfinished basement.
In larger downtowns, the dime stores had candy counters where you bought by the pound or fraction thereof. Loose candy – nonpareils were a favorite – were scooped up by the counter person, weighed in a hopper and then slid into a white paper bag, which you clutched tightly all the way home. Other 5&10s had wonderful donut counters, and as soon as you entered the store you could smell the sweetness. Every mom’s hand was soon tugged by a child with watering mouth. Even bigger stores had lunch counters with fountain service and quick, simple sandwiches, such as grilled cheese and chicken salad.
Just as Automats were once urban fixtures, complete with characters and good, dependable food, so 5&10s were small and big downtown meccas, one of the required stores that made main street Main Street, a place for every income level, almost always affordable, even for a fellow with an rare quarter burning a hole in his pocket. What an adventure they were.