Dime Store Treats and Treasures

Present-day Dollar Stores were dime stores in my youth, and the merchandise in my dime stores was even tackier than what is in today’s descendants of dime stores. But the treasures I found in Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, and Newberry’s are now featured in antique shops, and their prices have been wildly inflated. Somehow that seems to make them less valuable to me than when they sold for 10 cents each. What a spending spree I could have on my weekly allowance of a quarter! The items were new then in their fresh coats of paint, and the paper pages of the “Big Little Books” had that tantalizing smell of my favorite bookstore—they hadn’t yet acquired an 80-year-old patina of grime and musty paper pages.

My dime stores were wedged into a corner of the Public Square in Springfield, Missouri. You could be non-sighted and still recognize where you were as you passed by them. An aroma surrounded you of cheap perfume, freshly popped popcorn, and what I thought of as “the foreign smell” (exotic wood) of anything that came from Japan, where most of the knickknacks, toys, and chinaware were made.

With my allowance I could always find a cardboard set of paper dolls. One in particular we girls especially loved had a punch-out baby on the cover and a punch-out baby carriage on the back cover. Inside were a punch-out highchair with a feeding bowl, a nursing bottle, and paper outfits. I was always attracted to a toy nursing set in a box, containing a tiny celluloid baby doll, a tin miniature bathtub, a strangely shaped glass baby bottle, a wee washcloth or a little sponge, No matter how many of these I had bought, they always seemed to get lost and I could buy another one.

Each season brought a new crop of merchandise in the dime stores to tempt my friends and me. With spring came kites, roller skate keys, jump ropes, yellow and blue giant balloons, bags of marbles with swirls of orange inside the milky glass, sets of jacks and little red balls. Summer featured beach toys like gaily decorated small tin pails with child-size spades, curious sand mills with a handle that turned tiny buckets around on a track, and tin molds to create sea creatures like starfish in sand. Autumn was thrilling with displays of papier-mâché jack-o-lanterns and a host of scary masks. Outside the stores, Christmas was announced under the evergreen-wrapped lamp poles by a bonneted Salvation Army woman who rang a bell beside a black kettle full of coins and a few bills. Most exciting of the year’s wares, I thought, were the figurines that were meant to occupy Nativity crèches. We could group Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in a replica of a stable—not an American stable but a curiously framed structure with a short trough inside on legs and filled with straw where the Jesus could lie. To fill out the scene there were shepherds, sheep, cows, donkeys, chickens and camels. Best of all, there were the Three Kings with gold turbans and robes painted purple and other resplendent colors. Over a number of years I added a new figure or two to the crèche we arranged each Christmas on our fireplace mantel. All the Nativity figures had “Italy” or “Germany” stamped underneath them. They seemed to bring me in touch with Europe, a long way from Missouri and not yet considered our enemies of World War II.

Dime stores also sold very special candy we couldn’t find in most grocery stores—“circus peanuts,” which were orange-colored, banana-flavored, peanut-shaped pieces of candy so sweet they set your teeth on edge. With most of my allowance I could get a chunk of milk chocolate. Most gourmet of all were paper-wrapped marshmallows covered with caramel candies called “Queen Anne” something or other. In summer, ice cream sandwiches made of waffles that enclosed a brick of Neapolitan ice cream were popular with adult customers, too. Shiny red candy apples were autumn decorations in the sweets section. Mesh net stockings filled with hard Christmas candy often ended up in Christmas stockings Santa filled.

Once in a great while when I happen to be in a Dollar Store in a little rural town, I experience a flashback of the thrill I experienced in Kresge’s on a Saturday noon in 1935. I had enough money to have a chocolate soda and a hot roast beef sandwich at the fountain before I shopped for paper dolls or a Big Little Book. A red letter day followed when I could attend a matinee of the latest Shirley Temple film.