Lost emporiums of childhood joy

Ben Franklin, Durand, MI – Source: flickr.com

When I was growing up, a favorite place to shop was the five-and-dime (or variety) stores like Woolworth’s (Lancaster, PA, 1879-1997), G.C. Murphy (McKeesport, PA, 1906-1985), S.S. Kresge (Detroit, 1867-1966, now Kmart), Ben Franklin (Boston, 1887-present), S.H. Kress (Nanticoke, PA, 1896-1981), and McCrory’s (Scottdale, PA, 1882-2002). For us kids, you could buy a treasure trove of goodies for a less than a quarter. Candy, gum, football cards, baseball cards, matchbox cars and zillions of other toys, crayons, etc., were all just waiting for a youngster to sweep into their arms. Many of these stores also had a snack shop or lunch counter for a sweet and yummy milkshake, sundae, or a float.

Unfortunately, several of the variety store chains had stores situated in the South which refused service to African-Americans during parts of this same time period. Righting these sorrowful instances by means of sit-ins became an important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement.

Of the five-and-dime stores, Ben Franklin was my personal favorite. Not for any particular reason other than it was the closest to home and easily accessible. However, from an architectural standpoint, it is hard to top the stunning art deco designs found in many S. H. Kress stores. In fact, the Kress company felt:

“Each Kress store was a gift of civic art to its community.”

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC even has a collection specific to these impressive Kress structures. Fortunately, approximately 50 of these lovely retail buildings have been preserved for current generations to be inspired by their awesome architecture and fine detail.

Kress store in Tampa – Source: flickr.com

Fast forward to today, where dollar stores have replaced the five-and-dime retailers across America’s landscape. It is quite remarkable (and rather sad) that none of these childhood emporiums of joy remain, at least to the extent they once did. Ben Franklin has a few craft stores and maintains an on-line presence. Considering Ben Franklin had a peak of 2,500 stores, McCrory’s 1,300, G.C. Murphy 529, and S. H. Kress with 200; the number of dollar stores dotting the American landscape is amazing, even when accounting for the increase in population since my childhood.

The three most prominent dollar store chains the Greater Lansing area are Dollar General (Nashville, TN) which recently surpassed the 10,000 store mark nationwide, Dollar Tree (Hampton Roads, VA) with over 4,000 stores, and Family Dollar (Charlotte, NC) with 6,800 stores. Unlike the six Yankee predecessors listed above, all three of these began in the southern United States and have gradually made their northward way to Mid-Michigan. Considering there were hardly any dollar stores operating here when I moved to Michigan in 1992, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Huge new distributions centers (DCs) are situated just to our south in Northeast Indiana for both Dollar General (I-69 and SR 18 in Marion, IN – link to aerial photo) and Family Dollar (832,000 square feet at I-69 and County Line Road in Ashley, IN – link to aerial photo).

Family Dollar DC – Source: dekalbcountyedp.org

A fascinating aspect of dollar stores is how different they can be. Dollar Tree sells items almost exclusively for a dollar – some may be name brands and many items are not. Meanwhile, Family Dollar promotes itself as a place to find name brand products, but not necessarily for a dollar. Dollar General is sort of a mix of the other two. Dollar Tree stores also tend to have fairly significant grocery section and the ones I have been to are carpeted. Dollar General and Family Dollar on the other hand, have linoleum floors.

When shopping at the dollar stores, I often wonder if they will carry the same memories for today’s generation of kids. Several decades from now, will our children think of dollar stores with a smile? My guess is probably no – Best Buy, GameStop, and Toys R Us will likely fill their memory banks instead. In the end, only history will tell.

Since most dollar stores tend to be placed along highway commercial corridors or in small strip shopping centers, they certainly do not have the feel of permanence that the five-and-dime stores once did. Even those five-and-dime stores located outside of downtown or midtown areas felt more lasting that today’s crop of dollar stores. As an urban planner, I believe it is that feel of permanence that enhances and benefits the community, compared to a bland looking shell with a sign slapped on it located on the edge of town.

One can only hope that the renewed interest in urban living will revive the notion of constructing quality buildings that are meant to impress and last, as was so well exemplified by the S.H. Kress chain. To me, the times of “no frills” and “preliminary-blight” building design and construction should be relegated to the landfills of history in favor of style, charm, charisma, and aesthetics. Whether this will occur is yet to be seen, but I think many of us are secretly hoping for it to happen in our heart.

Kress store in El Paso – Source: flickr.com

This entry was posted in advertising, architecture, cities, culture, diversity, economic development, geography, history, land use, planning, spatial design and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Lost emporiums of childhood joy

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  2. “Preminary blight” is as good a name for a building design movement as I’ve read. Such structures do have one benefit: no one will mourn them as they are abandoned, repurposed and, eventually, discarded. However, one wonders about the psychology of place when the built landscape no longer engenders pride, wonder or that sense of loss. What does it mean to be from somewhere that is built to be nowhere in particular?

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  8. Gary Mathis says:

    My best childhood memories were the General Stores located in the back roads of Kentucky near my grandmothers house. Stick candy, sodas, and worthless toys were all to common purchases. Being the Community Planner for a rural county in Kentucky and also the birthplace of Dollar General (Scottsville KY pop. 4,600) I have been pleasingly impressed by the move by Dollar General to locate new stores in rural areas. Over last two years there have been new stores added to places like Cedar Springs, KY, Fountain Run, KY, Pritchardsville, KY, Gamaliel, KY. Places that may not even be listed on a map. But its in a location where somebodies brother or sister, aunt or uncle or grandparents live, So there is hope that the memories created in rural America will be a lasting impression for some of America’s youth.

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