A tale of three cities, five & dime to ‘discount’

I t’s probably just getting older— I had a birthday during the past week—but I started thinking about how things have changed during my 19 years.

Oh wait, I was looking at that upside dow n... dur ing my 61 years.

It was just a phrase, one that I recognized but had to explain to the disgustingly younger people I come in contact with every day.

Five and dime stores.

They were the forerunners of today’s discount stores, quite literally in some cases. They sold a little bit of everything and back in the really old days most of what they sold was actually priced at a nickel or a dime. We had them in Rockdale. In fact, as a little kid, I once bought rubber dinosaurs at Stricker’s about 10 feet from where I now sit writing this column.

Str icker’s bec ame Winn’s. Based in San Antonio, Winn’s was a long-time fixture in downtown Rockdale and later put in a second Rockdale store in “the shopping center,” the site of today’s Brookshire Bros.

We thought Rockdale had really gone bigtime with two Winn’s.

Just about ever y town had a five and dime. Taylor had a McCrory’s and Temple had both a Kress’s and a Kresge’s.

If you think that made for some confusion you’re right. In the old pre-mall days all the Temple action was downtown.

There was a Kresge’s downtown— and maybe a Ben Franklin, another five and dime, although my 19-year-old memory is a little hazy on that—and a Kress’s down Adams Avenue.

The most famous five- anddime was, of course Woolworth’s. Just about all the big cities had a Woolworth’s.

Then the first sure- enough discount stores began to appear. Remember Gibson’s? Rockdale had one for a while.

I think the first actual discount store I ever saw was something called Gulf Mart in Austin.

It was on Burnet Road back when Burnet Road was just a sleepy little back way into Austin. I think the building is still there but I couldn’t tell you which one it is among the hundreds.

But the discount store that really blew me away was Clark’s in Waco.

I’ve only met one other person in recent years who remembers Clark’s. It was huge and new, bright and clean and wonderful to an elementary-age kid.

Clark’s had literally everything, including toy race cars and comic books and when you had those you had me.

It also had a machine gizmo where, for a quarter, you could make little metal discs and engrave them with anything you wanted as long as you didn’t exceed three dozen characters.

I think I christened myself a lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps but, in a great foreshadowing of my future life, I spelled it wrong.

Ah, Clark’s, I think if I could go back to one of those places I’d pick you. Or maybe Newberry’s.

J. J. Newberry’s was one of the anchors in Capital Plaza in Austin, which opened on my 10th birthday in 1960.

Capital Plaza is still there but it’s just one of many strip malls— a name which came into vogue later—along I-35.

In 1960 it was Austin’s showpiece. You didn’t have to go downtown to shop Austin any more.

Newberry’s had every thing Clark’s did, plus a long, skinny cafeteria, which ran the full length of the store’s southern wall.

In its later years, the cafeteria offered an all-you-could eat fried chicken lunch for 99 cents.

Then the malls came. Lake Air in Waco was the first sure-enough one I remember. The stores were indoors and the places between them were air conditioned!

Then things happened. Everything merged. Newberry’s stores became part of McCrory and McCrory’s, which started out as part of Kress’s, closed.

So did Gibson’s. Woolworth’s became Woolco and then closed.

Kresge’s became K-Mart.

In Arkansas a man named Sam Walton dreamed a dream.

Temple got a mall, Waco got a mall, Austin got four. Then Austin went on to upscale, mid-scale and every scale, strip center shopping for a million people.

We all got older and learned new stuff. Now we can buy anything we want, make a fortune, send lies to everybody we know and start a relationship without getting up from our chairs.

I think I’m going to get up from mine, though, and look under the floor vents here.

I want to see if maybe Mr. Stricker left any rubber dinosaurs behind.

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2011-11-10 digital edition

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