BY LEE B. ROBERTS
photos courtesy of Oak Clearing Museum
Remember the days when you could enter a store with 10 cents in your pocket and actually walk out with merchandise in your hand? Even those too young to recall such a time have heard tales about the historical buying power of nickels and dimes.
For proof that these thrifty times existed, you need only look to Racine's old five-and-dime stores, once a fixture of the downtown area.
Having grown up near 14th and Wisconsin streets, Dorothy Osborne remembers walking downtown to buy notions for her mother at F.W. Woolworth's, one of the city's early 5- and 10-cent stores. When she was a youngster, dime stores were the place to go for needles, pins and thread, said Osborne, now 90.
Her most vivid memories of the dime stores, however, are those of Christmas shopping.
“I would go looking for inexpensive Christmas presents and occasionally there were ornaments that intrigued me," she said.
The center counter in the store was divided into islands, each with its own cashier, Osborne said. “All the floors were wooden and if it rained they were really a mess."
“It seems to me there was also quite a selection of lipstick and cosmetics. But, I knew my mother wouldn't let me use those things, so there was no point in my paying much attention to it," she said.
Sometimes Osborne would take her younger brother along on Christmas shopping excursions, and, if they were lucky, their father would lend them his streetcar pass so they could ride home with their treasures, she said. On one occasion, her brother was the recipient of the gift she bought a goldfish.
Woolworth's, which opened on Monument Square around 1912 and moved to the 400 block of Main Street around 1925, was one of a pioneer, national chain of five-and-dimes. Frank Winfield Woolworth started the dime-store tradition back in 1897 when he opened the first, fixed-price store in America in Lancaster, Pa. The early stores were limited to 5-cent items, and a line of 10-cent items was added later.
The F.W. Woolworth's that stood on Main Street here for more than 40 years was one of the city's most successful early dime stores, but it was not Racine's first.
When S.H. Knox & Co., opened a store at 506-508 Monument Square around 1906, it replaced an earlier dime store named Seibert, Good & Co., according to an article in the Preservation Racine Inc. Newsletter last year. S.H. Knox was Woolworth's cousin and had been his partner in five stores that the pair opened in Pennsylvania and New York in the 1880s. By 1912, Knox owned 98 stores and Woolworth owned 319 (in 37 states). The two companies merged shortly before they opened the Woolworth's store here.
A year after Woolworth's arrival, another five-and-dime store was established by S.S. Kresge in the 400 block of Main Street (in the now-vacant space last occupied by R & W Supply).
Customers at both Kresge's and Woolworth's were greeted by storefronts that featured the establishment's name set in big gold letters on a dark red background. This color combination was a trademark of five-and-tens everywhere. Kresge's later added a second, green-front store, which handled merchandise priced between 25 cents and a dollar, in the same block. And, soon after the Kresge stores' arrival, another dime store, Neisner Bros., moved in creating a row of variety stores.
Once inside, shoppers could find a wide selection of items ranging from household goods, to personal items, hardware and toys. For Bob Johnson, a long-time city resident, toys were the biggest attraction.
“They would have inventory sales when you could get some really good deals," he said. “I remember buying 12 little cast iron cars for a nickel a piece. There was a convertible, an oil truck and a trailer I had them all. It was a real bargain."
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Lead soldiers were another item Johnson saved his pennies for.
“I would try to buy one every week," he said. “I was real lucky because my grandfather was a lead pattern maker and he had a sand mold at home. I'd bring home a lead soldier and he'd make me another one just like it. He could make a copy of anything I'd bring him."
Another dime store item that was a big hit with kids in those days was the cap gun, Johnson said. “Grab bags were also popular. You could get them for a dime or a nickel and they would have a little bit of everything in them."
With merchandise displayed on countertops and in bins (a trend that F.W. Woolworth started) rather than on shelves behind the counter, dime stores were especially attractive to children. Not all welcomed unaccompanied children, however, because owners feared shoplifting problems.
“When we were kids, we were kept pretty well on the trot," Johnson said. “They didn't like us sitting too long in any one place."
As a teen-ager, Johnson used to stop in at the dime store lunch counters for a slice of pie and a glass of milk.
“The lunch counters were a big thing," he said. “A lot of the working people ate at places like that. The counter was long, with maybe 20-25 seats. The plate lunches went for about 25 cents a piece and the food was good."
“The smell is the thing I really remember," he said. “It was a combination of the food and the merchandise, because there was no separation between the two areas."
Customer service was another feature that dime store shoppers remember.
In an article about the closing of Snyder's `Five-Cent-to-a-Dollar Store," located on Taylor Avenue for 28 years (beginning in 1949), a customer said, “I have a feeling an era in merchandising has ended. There aren't too many places left where you are made to feel so special for a 15-cent purchase."
Warren Snyder first opened his variety store in an former A&P grocery stores at 2007 Taylor Ave. and later moved it to 1967 Taylor Ave. The store closed when he retired at age 65.
One downtown dime store was so concerned about its customer service policies it issued a six-page, typed instruction packet to its “salesladies." The store was L. Wiemann Co., located at 520 Main St. (where the food court is today) from 1940 until about 1960.
Johnson's wife, Mary Ellen, worked at Wiemann's after graduating from Horlick High School. Although she didn't stay at the job long, Mary Ellen remembers working near the front door in a department that sold cookies and canned goods.
Having previously done only baby-sitting jobs, she said she had to adjust to the strict rules set for employees of the store.
The instructions, which her husband saved all these years, open with the following directions: “Approach a customer with polite phrases such as `May I wait on you?,' `May I serve you?,' `May I help you?,' etc., but never use curt expressions like `What do you want?' or use artificial airs as `I'll find one for you in a minute, honey,' or `Yes, dearie, right over here' or `Here's yours buddie.' "
Also included are instructions on how to properly wrap a package, what to say when giving change, and how to present oneself, in regard to makeup and hairstyles.
“Do not chew gum, visit or talk in a loud voice," one paragraph reads. “Never be afraid to smile at a customer. If you are friendly, the customer knows that you are cooperating in giving good service, and knows that you are glad to make a sale."
Despite the good service and fond memories, as prices of merchandise rose, all of the downtown dime stores eventually closed up shop. Six years after Wiemann's service ended, the downtown Woolworth's shut its doors. Kresge's had removed its red-front store in 1962, and replaced it with one of the company's Jupiter stores, which was more of an odd-lot business. It ceased operations in 1976.
Neisner's, which survived a fire in 1940 and then opened in a new building, closed in 1971. That building later burned too, and has since been torn down.
If you look closely as you walk down Main Street, you can see one of the few signs of those days gone by at Jan's Card Shop, 434 Main St. The storefront there was once Woolworth's north show window and entryway.