Losing a Five and Dime

FOR more than a century, Woolworth has occupied a special place in America's retail and cultural landscape.

Now that landscape is changing forever with the company's announcement that it will cut 13,000 jobs and close 970 stores. This represents a 9 percent reduction in its work force and the demise of half its stores.

Some Woolworth stores will be converted to other company-owned specialty stores, like Foot Locker. Still, the closings will work a hardship on economically depressed communities, where Woolworth represents the only variety store within miles where the poor and elderly can shop. But the closings will also not go unnoticed - nor unmourned - even by those whose shopping habits are upscale.

From the start, Woolworth has stood for diversification. Belonging to the age of retail generalization, its niche was to be the only store in town. From turtles, goldfish, and canaries to penny candy, thimbles, and furniture, nothing seemed too big or too small for a prime-time Woolworth. The whole store was a notion counter.

There has always been a ragged charm to Woolworth, from its costume jewelry to its bright - but low-cost - toys. No illusions, but a certain amount of romance at no extra charge. Reflecting this aura, its clerks have deserved the recognition they received in Harry Warren's song, ``I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store.''

Every long-established store leaves a vacancy when it departs. As the familiar red signs disappear from town squares and strip malls, their comforting presence will be missed. It is too soon to sound a requiem, but the warning is clear: Woolworth could disappear in a sea of ``convenience'' stores. If this happens, the goods Woolworth has supplied all these years could be replaced, but what about its special character that cannot be measured by stock inventory?

Like no other enterprise, Woolworth has stood for the American dream on a budget, and it is a sad irony that in tight times this friend of penny-savers should be the one to go.

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