Does my heart good to hear someone say, “Five-and-dime store.” It’s something heard very little any more. The term is disappearing from American conversation just as the stores vanished from Main Street America some years ago.
Friend and fellow wordsmith Gary Borders mentioned Perry Brothers in one of his columns a few weeks ago, resurrecting memories of the long gone variety stores once found in every small community in Texas and adjoining states.
From the early to mid-20th century, the terms five-and-dime, five-and-ten-cent store, or dime store identified a retail establishment offering a wide variety of merchandise, inexpensive for the most part with many items priced at 5¢ or 10¢ — hence the name.
Perry Brothers, just one of the many dime-store chains that marked an era, was where my dad spent the majority of his retail business career. Others similar in size to Perry Brothers included Duke and Ayres and Ben Franklin. They were mainstays in the smaller communities and most were regional. In the bigger cities and at the national level, it was Woolworth’s, Kress Stores, or TG&Y. Five-and-dimes were typically located downtown, the place where everyone went to buy what they needed before urban sprawl gave birth to shopping centers and malls.
My memories of growing up during the era of five and dimes are triggered by smells. The aromatic experience started with the bulk candy case strategically placed just inside the front door. Long glass cases of popular confections like circus peanuts, orange slices, Boston baked beans, haystacks and candy corn—each with their own unique olfactory delight. And forget about prepackaged bags. These sugary delights were displayed in bulk, bought by the ounce, weighed on balance beam scales and served up in paper bags.
The variety store’s heyday was a time before air conditioning was standard fare. When the weather was warm, the front doors were open and ceiling fans were busy churning inviting smells out onto the sidewalk. Shoppers on the street really didn’t need signs. With a keen sense of smell, it was easy to identify a dime store, a clothing store, a bakery or a drug store along the sidewalk.
Once inside a variety store, the nose was still a satisfactory guide for directing a shopper past the candy to the unique smell of sizing in new fabric sold by the yard, to the fragrance counter identified by distinctive scents like “Blue Waltz” perfume, or to the machined metallic odor area of bicycles, tricycles and wagons in the toy department.
For this dime-store brat however, the strongest reinforcement scent was that of the oiled wood floors. Maintenance on the wood floors required a weekly oiling, an undertaking accomplished with a wide push mop. Sweeping floors and pushing the mop was just one of my jobs as the son of a Perry Brothers store manager. Others included assembling bicycles and wagons, taking out trash, washing windows or unpacking freight. All were good jobs for a youngster in junior high school.
The pay was 25¢ an hour. Doesn’t sound like much today, but in the late 1950s a quarter would snag a large bag of the aforementioned candy with change, at least a couple of comic books, or a ticket into the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Martin theater in Mount Pleasant, Texas.
Discount centers in the late 60s were the beginning of the end for variety stores. Perry Brothers, a Lufkin based chain lingered into the early 80s in a few places before closing or selling locations to other retailers or individuals. My dad saw the handwriting on the wall and migrated from Perry’s to Gibson’s Discount Centers before retiring.
When we moved to Mount Pleasant in 1959, Perry Brothers was on North Jefferson where Glynn’s Western Wear is located today. A newer store about 1964 was opened few blocks farther north on Jefferson near the city’s current water department. Gibson’s Discount Center came to Mount Pleasant in 1968, and not long afterward, Perry’s closed.
For one who remembers dime stores, it’s really pretty easy to look at the front of a building, squint just a bit and recognize an old Perry’s storefront. Many places, I’ve walked in the door and was pretty sure I could still smell the old diagonally cut oiled wood floors underneath another generation or two of floor covering. With a little imagination, the smell of candy near the front was not a far stretch, but that’s a sensory trip likely reserved for someone who grew up in an era when the five-and-dime store was the hub of downtown retail.
Happy Father’s Day dad, we miss you … and we miss the five and dime stores.
—Leon Aldridge, Jr.