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Shoppers mourn demise of the five-and-dime

July 18, 1997

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ Linda Hengst has relied on Woolworth’s all her life.

As a child, she would go to the store in Altoona, Pa., and beg her grandparents to buy her a toy. As a teen-ager, she would share Cokes and fries with friends at the lunch counter in Warren, Ohio.

And on Thursday, Mrs. Hengst, 50, went to the five-and-dime in search of envelopes for her office.

``Where else do you get envelopes, a pound of coffee, thread if you lose the button on your clothes on the way to an interview? It’s just awful they’re closing,″ she said.

After 117 years as America’s general store, Woolworth Corp. said Thursday it will close its remaining 400 U.S. F.W. Woolworth stores and change its name. Frank Woolworth opened the nation’s first five-and-dime in Lancaster, Pa., in 1879.

Of Woolworth Corp.’s more than $8 billion in annual sales, $7 billion comes from the company’s newer, more profitable chains, which include Foot Locker, Champs sporting goods and Northern Reflections apparel shops.

Woolworth stores reported an operating loss of $37 million last year as the chain struggled to compete against big discounters.

For generations of shoppers, Woolworth’s was the standard.

From hairnets to handkerchiefs, turtles to tools and lipstick to lunch, most everyone found something there _ and usually cheap.

Shoppers delighted in prowling the narrow aisles in search of bobby pins or dish cloths, or following the aroma to find a bag of hot salted peanuts.

Mothers would drag children past the popcorn machine and the mechanical horse to stock up on underwear or school supplies.

Those same children scoured shelves in search of the finest birthday gift for Mom that a tiny allowance could buy, maybe a plastic champagne bottle filled with bubble bath and a plastic rose.

Mrs. Hengst, who stopped by the downtown Columbus store Thursday afternoon, said she still has the xylophone she talked her grandparents into buying for her.

``I drove them crazy with it,″ she said with a smile. ``They’d tell me to go out on the porch and play it. I also bought a little bunny that jumped. I kept looking at and looking at it″ until they finally gave her the money to buy the mechanical toy.

For Maria Simpson, it was lunch and shopping for Christmas presents at Woolworth’s in her hometown of Brooklyn.

``Our treat was going into Woolworth’s and getting a malted and grilled cheese sandwich,″ Ms. Simpson, 44, said as she popped into Woolworth’s to buy a flea collar. ``I would get ceramic things for Mom and toys for my brothers.″

Byron Rider, who has worked for Woolworth for 29 years _ as manager of the downtown store for the last 10 _ has heard it all before.

``Every week I hear from someone who said they grew up in this place and their grandma brought them here,″ he said.

``It’s home to many.″

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