Don't take away the wonder of Woolworth's

WHILE it's true to say that Woolworth's has had a diminishing role in my personal retail pantheon over the past ten years, news that it may be about to be sold off for the price of a bag of Pick'n'Mix has truly dimmed the day. For many of us, Woolworths has always been so much more than just a shop.

Among the family photographs at home stands a framed snap of two grinning teenage girls (one with amateurish eyeliner, the other with unevenly crimped hair). It was taken on an August day in 1983, when my best friend and I, out on a Chelsea Girl reconnaissance and having gone to great lengths with the eyeliner (me) and the hair crimper (her), decided we must capture our teenage pulchritude for posterity.

Long before the advent of mobile phone cameras and Heat magazine, the only practical option for instant immortality was the Photo-Me booth that stood just inside the entrance of Woolworth's. We were then both thin enough to squeeze together on the tiny plastic seat behind the pleated curtain, giggling and posing as the flash exploded four times, waiting for the strip of photographs to be ejected and then carefully tearing it in half, to keep two each. Which we both have. Thank you for that, at least, Frank Woolworth.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

F W Woolworth, the American chain whose owner launched the British Woolworth's in 1909, was the original 'five-and-dime' store, where everyday folk went to buy household essentials, knowing that its prices were undercutting everyone else's. The notion of a bargain store rapidly became as popular in Britain as it was in America: Woolies' mass-produced goods became a staple for all Britons, whether you went there to kit out your kitchen or indulge in a spontaneous treat. It was unthinkable in those days that you might buy a cheese grater for its design credentials… if it grated cheese and cost two quid, it was faultless.

My mother, on her trips to Woolies for plant pots and baking trays, wisely banned all three of her children from the temptations of the Pick'n'Mix counter – not only because of the potentially ruinous amount of pink shrimps and sugar mice we would have bagged, but also because she had seen other small children sampling the sweets, only to spit the less tasty ones straight back in to the tubs. Or so she told us.

Other Proustian tokens of Woolworths' part in my childhood are the red woollen dressing gown with its lovely ladybird buttons, the miniature Sindy outfits purchased after a particularly tearful visit to the dentist, the longed-for Chad Valley doll's pram with its shiny chrome frame and smart blue hood. Back then, its Christmas TV commercials, those two-minute epics of tinselly excess, hinted at untold comfort and joy rather than tawdry commercialisation of the festive season.

Growing older, it was the record counter that became a magnet. What teenager could resist spending their pocket money on whatever 12-inch single had been canonised by John Peel on Radio 1 that week, casually carrying it home, underarm, for all their peers to envy?

During the student years, shopping at Woolies was less cool but occasionally unavoidable: when I rashly invited six people to dinner in a flat that possessed only five plates, four glasses and no saucepans, the high-street emporium came into its own.

In recent years, Woolies has become the place I dip into on 24 December, to grab the chocolate selection boxes that constitute breakfast for my three nephews every Christmas morning. Unlike at Tesco or Sainsbury's, I don't have to queue at the till behind a woman who appears to have received a tip-off about an imminent Third World War and is shopping accordingly.

We are all to blame for Woolworths' demise. During the decade when debt was cheap and we were encouraged to live conspicuously beyond our means, we abandoned its jolly, haphazardly stocked aisles of serviceable Pyrex bowls for the middle-market likes of Habitat and John Lewis, with their artfully distressed garden furniture, Nigella breadbins and mango-hued Le Creuset griddle pans.

The irony is that so many of us will soon have lots more time to spend at home in our kitchens and gardens – and then we'll really mourn the opportunity to cheer ourselves up with a 99p plastic colander, cake tin or trowel.