Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Dime Store

There was a time when the dime store loomed large in American pop culture. The movies Five and Ten, Alice Adams, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean all involved dime stores to one degree or another. An old song proclaimed "I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store." The dime store was as much a part of the main streets of American towns as the drug store or barber shop.

For those of you who are too young to remember, a dime store was a store which sold a wide array of inexpensive items. Dime stores carried everything from toys to clothing to jewellery to candy. Many items would be priced at five or ten cents, hence the dime store's many synonyms. Dime stores were also called "five and dime stores," "five and ten cent stores," or, more simply, the "five and ten." They were also called "variety stores," due to the fact that they carried a wide variety of merchandise. Dime stores differed from department stores in one important way. Quite simply, dime stores were decidedly downscale from the average department store.

The origins of the dime store can be traced back to the wholesalers Butler Brothers and a man named William Moore. Butler Brothers was founded in Boston in 1877 as a company that sold wholesale to merchants, primarily through catalogues. In 1878 the company developed the idea of a "five cent counter." The idea was that a five cent counter would be placed near the front of the store to attract customers. Customers would come into the store to buy the five cent items and would usually wind up buying some more expensive items as well.

This brings us to William Moore, who operated Augalbury and Moore's Drygoods in Watertown, NY. Among his employees was one F, W, Woolworth, the most prominent figure in dime store history. Perhaps noticing the success of other stores with five cent counters, Moore introduced one to his store. In charge he placed his young employee F. W. Woolworth. Woolworth picked out the items for the counter and was charged with restocking it. On the very first day the five cent counter sold out, so that Woolworth had to order more items for the counter. It was then that Woolworth realised that if a five cent counter could be a success, then what about an entire store filled with items for five and ten cents? Woolworth opened his first dime store in Utica, New York on February 22, 1879. Unfortunately, the store went out of business within a few months. Undeterred, Wooworth opened another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 21, 1879. The store was a success. Indeed, by 1911 Woolworth had over a 1000 stores. By 1919 Woolworth owned the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building in New York City. In 1919 alone the company boasted $107 million in sales.

Woolworth was the most successful dime store chain, but it was by no means the only one. Bulter Brothers, who had set the events in motion that would lead to the development of dime stores, had been among the most successful companies in the United States. By the turn of the 19th century, they had 100,000 customers nationwide. Unfortunately, by the 1920s they had seen their business eroded by the advent of chain stores such as Woolworth. In 1927, then, Butler Brothers decided to open a chain of dime stores under the name "Ben Franklin." The Ben Franklin stores proved fairly successful. Butler Brothers sold the chain in 1959, but it continues to this day.

Another giant in dime stores was the S.S. Kresge Company. The company's beginnings go back to J. G. McCrory and Sebastian Spering Kresge. McCrory opened his first store in Memphis, Tennessee in 1896. A year later he entered into a partnership with Kresge and the two opened a store in Detroit, Michigan. In 1899 Kresge paid $3000 to McCrory and gave up his interest in the Memphis store to become the sole owner of the Detroit store. In 1900 Kresge found another partner in his brother in law Charles Wilson. Wilson was to operate store #2 in Port Huron, Michigan. By 1907, however, Wilson had tired of the business, so Kresge bought him out. It was then that S.S. Kresge Company was founded. It was incorporated in 1912, at which point its annual sales exceeded $10 million.

The stores of S. H. Kress & Company may have been better known for the architecture of their stores than their stores themselves. Samuel H. Kress in 1896 opened his first "five and ten cent store" in Memphis, Tennessee in 1896. Eventually, Kress would own 300 stores in thirty states. Their stores stood out from any other dime stores in their architecture. They were built in an art deco style, complete with curved display windows and yellow or buff coloured brick with off white trim. In the late Twenties and Thirties, the architectural division of S. H. Kress & Company had about l00 people in its employ, all to design stores. In 1965 the Kress chain was taken over by Genesco Inc. In 1980 Genesco liquidated the company, making Kress one of the first giants of dime stores to fall.

Of course, there were many other smaller chains. TG&Y was a chain of variety stores that was at one time found across the Midwest. It was named for its three founders: Don Thompson, Les Gosselin, and Raymond A. Young. The stores once covered much of Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and other parts of the western Midwest.

I can remember that Moberly boasted three dime stores at one point. I remember the old Woolworth store from when I was fairly young. I can't remember if it had a lunch counter, as many Woolworth stores did (I think it may have), but I can remember the rest of the layout to some degree. The toy aisles were towards the middle of the store. At the very back was the pets section. There was also a Ben Franklin store in Moberly, as well as one in Salisbury. The Ben Franklin stores were more nondescript than Woolworth stores, although I seem to recall that their toy aisles were towards the back. I have better memories of TG&Y. It opened in 1972 and remained open until I was a young adult in the early eighties. Indeed, I remember Burt Ward (Robin on the old Batman TV show) was there for the store opening (I still have his autograph). Naturally, I remember that the toy section was near the middle of the store. Clothes were towards the right and the records and tapes (yes, we didn't have CDs back then) were towards the left, outer edge of the store.

Dime stores are a rare thing today, although they still exist. And arguably, the "dollar store" is their direct descendent. Ironically, the demise of the dime stores grew out of the dime stores themselves. In 1950 a man named Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin franchise in Bentonville, Arkansas under the name "Walton Five and Ten." Walton went onto found other Ben Franklin franchises. Eventually he fell upon the idea of buying goods wholesale and selling them at discount prices. Walton tried convincing the Ben Franklin chain that his approach was valid to no avail. As a result, Walton decided to strike out on his own. In 1962, in Rogers, Arkansas, the first WalMart was opened.

During this same period, Harry B. Cunningham, president of S.S. Kresge Company as of 1959, set his corporation on a new course. In the years following World War II, competition increased in the world of retailing. Studying various discount stores, Cunningham struck upon the idea of Kmart, a discount chain which would be owned and operated by S.S. Kresge Company. The first Kmart store opened in Garden City, Michigan in 1962, to be followed by seventeen more stores that same year.

One need look no further than the history of Kmart for the fate of the dime store. By 1977, a mere 15 years after the first KMart had opened, KMart stores accounted for 95% of all sales for S.S. Kresge Company. That same year the name of the company was changed to Kmart Corporation. In 1987 the remaining Kresge stores were sold to McCrory Corporation (the company founded by Kresge's old business partner, J. G. McCrory). By 1992 McCrory Corporation would file for bankruptcy. Others also suffered Kresge's fate. Woolworth, the giant of dime stores, would go out of business in 1997. Ben Franklin has survived, but only by changing from a dime store chain to a craft store chain. Unfortunately, the competition from the discount stores such as WalMart and Kmart drove many of the dime stores out of business.

Of course, there are still dime stores in existence. Some are mom and pop operations. Others are run by small, regional chains. Arguably, the dollar stores such as Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree could be considered the descendent of the dime store, although most do not carry the variety of merchandise as sold at the old dime stores. For myself, the demise of the dime is regrettable. Many of the old dime stores (particuarly those belonging to the Kress chain) were beautiful art deco buildings with stylised windows and signs. The interiors of the stores were cozier than the typical WalMart or Kmart. Indeed, it seems to me that items were easier to find in Woolworth than they are our local WalMart. Another superior feature of the dime stores is that, unlike WalMart and Kmart, check out stations were scattered throughout the store (just like the old department stores). One did not have to make his or her way all the way to the front of a store just to pay for an item.

I suppose that with the success of dollar stores it is possible that the dime store could make a comeback in a new form. Unfortunately, I can't see Dollar General adding a lunch counter any time soon or Family Dollar adopting art deco designs for their stores...


Cher'ley said...

I really enjoyed your blog on the Dime Store. Thanks

Cher'ley said...

I really enjoyed your blog on the Dime Store. Thanks