A sensory trip for those who grew up back then

“Grandpa, everything is changing fast
We call it progress, but I just don’t know.”

— Grandpa Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days, song lyrics by Jamie O’Hara, recorded by The Judds.

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I glance that way every time I walk by. Reminds me of the good old days.

I’m talking about the vacant building on the north side of the Center square with the letters P.B. in the mosaic tile entrances. I know it’s there, but I still look. I also know the letters represent Perry Brothers, a long-gone chain of general merchandise stores, once a staple in small towns.

What I didn’t know until last week was the first Perry Brothers store was established in Center, Texas, in 1918. That’s according to a National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form filed in 1988. 

The Lufkin structure described on the form was the home of C.W. Perry, one of the Perry brothers founding family members. The document also notes that after its beginning in Center, the Perry Brothers company was incorporated in 1924 with headquarters in Lufkin.

The company’s Lufkin history I know only too well. My father worked for Perry’s while in high school at the Pittsburg store. He returned to work for Perry’s after his discharge from the Army in 1945 and remained with them for 20 years.

The multistory building in downtown Lufkin on the corner of E. Lufkin Avenue and South First Street housed the Perry Brothers retail store Dad referred to as “Number One.” The upper stories of the building were corporate offices for the five-and-dime store chain. The basement level, now home to the Manhattan Fine Dining restaurant, was a company cafeteria.

The term “five-and-dime store” faded from conversation when the stores vanished from Main Street America, unable to compete with big discount stores and malls. 

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.

The popular retail stores that sold everything from comic books to cosmetics and bicycles to baby dolls were found under the name of Perry’s Duke and Ayres and Ben Franklin in smaller towns. Big city versions were Woolworths, Kress, and TG&Y.

Memories of growing up during the era, for me, are triggered by smells. Aromatic experiences like fresh bulk candy strategically displayed just inside the front door in long glass cases next to a popcorn machine. Popular confections like circus peanuts, orange slices, Boston baked beans, and candy corn—each with unique olfactory delights. 

Forget prepackaged bags hanging on hooks. Instead, the sugary treats were sold by the ounce, weighed on scales, and served up in paper bags. Ten cents would buy enough to last for the bicycle ride home.

The variety store’s heyday was before air conditioning was standard fare. Front doors of businesses were open, and ceiling fans swirled smells out to the sidewalk. Identifying a dime store, a clothing store, a bakery, or a drug store from the sidewalk was easy.

Walking into Perry’s, the nose was still a navigation tool. Past the candy to the smell of sizing in fabric sold by the yard. To the fragrances and distinctive scents like “Blue Waltz” perfume. To the toy department’s metallic odor of bicycles, tricycles, and wagons.

For this dime-store brat, however, the most potent memory remains wood floors that required weekly maintenance, an undertaking accomplished with a big push mop and floor oil. 

Of course, sweeping floors and pushing the mop was just one of my jobs as the offspring of a Perry Brothers store manager. Others included assembling bicycles and wagons, taking out the trash, washing windows, or unpacking freight. All good after-school and Saturday jobs for a junior high kid.

The pay was 25¢ an hour, not much today. But in the late 1950s, a quarter would buy a bag of the above candy or a comic book with change. Or a Saturday afternoon matinee at the Martin Theater. With popcorn.

When we moved to Mount Pleasant in 1959, Perrys was on North Jefferson in the same block as Duke & Aryes. Today, Glyn’s Western Wear occupies space where portions of both businesses once stood. In the early 60s, a newer store opened a few blocks up Jefferson in the strip shopping center with Piggly Wiggly. 

But soon after, discount centers spelled the beginning of the end for variety stores. Perry Brothers lingered into the early 80s in a few places before closing. By then, Dad had moved over to McKellar’s Department store before joining Gibson’s Discount Center in 1968, his last job before retirement. 

Passing the old Perry’s Center location again last week, I paused to peer through dust-covered doors. The warped wood flooring was pushing up vinyl tile, obviously applied over it in later years.

With little imagination, I smelled oiled floors. Candy. And popcorn. But that’s a sensory trip likely reserved for someone who grew up in that era. The good old days. When the five-and-dime was the center of downtown business.

“Paint me a picture of long ago.
Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good old days.”

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

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