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Jackie Brown stares idly at an aisle full of Christmas gear in a nearly empty Woolworth’s on Minnesota Avenue SE. Littering the shelves and strewn underfoot are holiday treats including 18-inch velvet Santas, shiny silver streamers, and bright red Santa Claus hats. “I’m just looking for bargains,” she explains.
Even by the frenzied standards of Christmas shopping, August is a little early to start selecting holiday trimmings. Somehow, though, Brown feels she has arrived too late. She wades toward the store’s dwindling stock of panty hose and shakes her head: “Ain’t nothing left, really.”
In a week, Brown’s judgment will be official. The F.W. Woolworth chain announced late last month that it would close all its remaining U.S. five-and-dime stores. But even before that, the chain’s Anacostia branch, a remnant of 1950s consumer Americana whose old-fashioned storefront stands out on Minnesota Avenue’s sea of plastic, was slated for closing.
But before that happens, the store had to sell off its remaining goodsno easy task with a sales staff about to lose its jobs and an inventory ranging between Hunchback of Notre Dame action figures and Hartz gerbil and hamster food. “People come here for staple stuff,” says Woolworth employee Geraldine Hoffler. “You know, household products, baby clothes, school supplies.”
Of course, as D-Day approaches, none of those things remain. Hoffler points to one of the 10 or so customers touring aisles of remaindered nail polish remover and dried-out jelly beans. “Well, we have been selling a lot of yarn,” she says. “And potting soil. People want potting soil.”
Maybe so. But the desolate aisles of Woolworth speak more about what people don’t want. There is an ineffable magic in watching yesterday’s generica twist in the no-refund/no-exchange wind. As the five-and-dime century gives way to the Potomac Mills future, the half-empty chain store offers a brief catalog of what’s left behind from a consumer age that died with Starsky and Hutch.
Even at 70 percent off retail, the Mr. T-size crates of Cracker Jack and the bins of Reagan-era jelly beans still aren’t moving. For just a couple of bucks, the middle-aged woman in the long dress and African headgear could grab herself Life: The Board Game, but the hours of family fun offered by the dozen or so remaining boxes don’t seem to attract her. Neither does the videotapemarked down to 90 cents from $2.99offering “professional advice for healthy, happy birds.”
Instead, she drifts over to the defoliated remnants of the hair-care section, where the dye kits for ash-blond hair just don’t seem to be sellingno surprise in an entirely African-American neighborhood. From an adjacent shelf, Christie Brinkley’s forlorn face smiles out from dozens of unwanted Cover Girl boxes. A woman rifling through mascaras clicks her tongue and gives up. “They don’t have my shade no more,” she says to her companion.
“Where are we gonna get our stuff that won’t cost us an arm and a leg?” asks shopper Edna Hodges, who popped in looking for a discount but hasn’t found anything worth buying. The grandmotherly Hodges is poking through the yarn section, where only a few spools remain. Apparently unimpressed by the five or so yards of birthday cardsyou can get cards for everyone from “Dad” to “Our Dad” to “Dad Humorous” to “Dad from Child”Hodges gets ready to leave. “All the good stuff is gone,” she says, filing out past the parking-lot graffiti, which reads, “Geroge (sic) Bush is a devil.”
Woolworth’s, of course, is unlikely to rank among the heavily mourned casualties of the new American economy. But that doesn’t mean something important won’t disappear when the chain rings out its last sale. Surly service and all, the chain’s commodious selection of standard-issue kitsch was the nation’s great cultural equalizer.
Today’s consumer economy segregates clientele by class. Some of the items at the Minnesota Avenue Woolworth’s will migrate down the street to Discount Mart, a ghetto supercheapo. But as for that birthday card to beloved Great Uncle Humorous, forget it. Tomorrow’s tchotchkes have dispersed, to CVS, to Bloomies, to Wal-Martall over the river or through the woods from Anacostia.CP