Woolworth It

WITH all the recent spats about historical preservation and my fond retro-kitsch memories of downtown San Jose’s old Woolworth Building, I felt like a higher cosmic intelligence was directing me southbound to fill the hole in my soul when I discovered a redevelopment mecca in Ventura County—the Woolworth Museum. Someone in downtown Oxnard, Calif., had restored that city’s old Woolworth building and turned it into a museum, so I just had to make a spiritual trek and investigate the place.

The place is a tour de force of historical preservation. The Woolworth Museum is the brainchild of one Mr. David Feigin, who calls himself a “lunatic revivificationist”—that is, someone who “revives” old buildings, and then defends and nurtures their mystical eminence. And what better place to engage in such activity than an old Woolworth building? 

When Feigin first bought the empty, two-story, 16,800-square-foot structure, he brought in a lawn chair and sat alone for hours in the vacant cavernous place, just so he could “hear the building.” Many books are already published on all that was Woolworth, that famous variety store chain that gave the English language the term “five-and-dime.” You could waltz in and do your cheap shopping while others mowed through greasy heart-stopper specials at the food counter. It was a place where graying waitresses would always refer to you as “honey.” Sadly, the entire U.S. operation cashed in about 1997, and all Woolworths across the country closed.

Feigin and his wife/business partner Nancy Greenfield gobbled up Oxnard’s abandoned Woolworth’s in 2002. “It was the only one left that was still in its original state and hadn’t been turned into something else yet,” she told me.

The place is now subdivided and converted into, among other things, a new all-ages live music cafe, additional office space upstairs and, of course, the museum itself, which showcases all sorts of Woolworth ephemera —trinkets, postcards, old stamp machines, books, autographed photos, arcade games and the likes thereof. Almost any kitsch Woolworth artifact you can imagine is here. The cafe even features retro décor and a Woolworth-style lunch counter. Even though Feigin himself has nothing to do with the original Woolworth business, he decided not to slap some cheap hideous facade on the place. He tracked down a warehouse in New York that still had the original Woolworth gold-leaf lettering one used to see on the outsides of all the stores, imported it in and fashioned it for the front of the building, just like the old days. Still a work in progress, the museum intends to become a destination place, especially for those die-hard Woolworth fanatics.

Mike Driscoll, a travel writer based in Brookfield, Ill., has been collecting Woolworth memorabilia for 25 years. “I’ve always traveled to see them because of the Americana aspect,” he said. “It used to be a lot of fun to go to towns like Lodi in the’70s. I would just trek through every town that I could. ... I would go to Palo Alto quite regularly. ... They all had that feeling. You just got a sense of America’s past when you went there. So we used to trek to Woolworth’s in every state.”

Turns out Driscoll is only one of a vast underground network of Woolworth collectors throughout the United States and he says he’s even traveled to Barbados and Southampton, England—places where Woolworths still actually exist. And he fully intends to visit Oxnard.

“Woolworth was Main Street America,” he said. “You sort of have this feeling of the county courthouse across the street from Woolworth’s when you go.” There you have it. If San Jose wants to be a destination place, it needs to get some soul and build its own Woolworth Museum.

All right honey, let me have it.

11 Comments

  1. “When you read about the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, integrating lunch counters was one of the big things they were fighting for.”

    Funny you should mention that. The old Woolworth building in Greensboro where the first sit-in took place is now slated to become a civil rights museum. Portions of that lunch counter still sit in the Greensboro Historical Museum as well as the Smithsonian.

    If that had been San Jose, the developers and builders would’ve flattened the place, saved nothing, and put in third-rate condos instead.

  2. I understand the San Jose Woolworth’s was one of the last to operate a lunch counter. Strange to think the concept of a lunch counter was once common in the US. When you read about the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, integrating lunch counters was one of the big things they were fighting for.

    Yet today you would have a hard time finding a lunch counter at all. Only by following Dagwood Bumstead in “Blondie” can one still see preserved the dynamic of the classic American lunch counter.

    Woolworth’s is still very big in Australia (http://www.woolworths.com.au/) but there it has metamorphized into a supermarket chain.

    Interesting since Westfield—owner of Valley Fair and hundreds of other shopping centres (we have to say) worldwide—is an Australian company.

    Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV, The Wall Street Journal, etc., is an Australian as well. (He supposedly changed his citizenship to enter the US media market.)

    If the Australians are going to take over, perhaps we can have them bring back Woolworth’s. And lunch counters.

    We will eat meat pies if necessary. (In memory of Claude in Willow Glen.)

  3. Thanks for the fond memories Gary. I used to love Woolworths. I was really sad to see it go. I was really poor when Woolworths was open downtown, and I used to go there as a treat to myself, or to sit and split a plate of fries with a friend or a date. They had the best lunches at a very affordable price. They mixed a pretty mean milk shake too. They had household things, socks; you name it at rock bottom prices. It was a very budget friendly business. They used to carry all kinds of holiday decorations, which my niece used to drag me to see with her. 
    It is kind of sad when you think about all the old great stores like this one Montgomery Wards, the independently owned bookstores like the Up Start Crown disappearing into the abyss, and replaced by new chain stores that are short staffed, over priced, and cold.

  4. Man, Gary, you are so right about what SJ would have done.  This town’s leadership has been hell-bent on obliterating any shred of its past, and should anyone have even suggested saving our DT Woolworth’s, a monument to the working class of this great nation, the noise from the anti-preservationist naysayers would have been deafening.

    I will have to stop in Oxnard next time I drive down to visit friends and relatives in LA.  I wonder if they have a photo booth in their memorabilia stash.

  5. Preserving an historic building and restoring it so that it can be used is hardly “preserving blight”. People travel all over the world to see and patronize historic buildings. San Jose leaders see these buildings as merely a nuisance to be demolished. Too bad many other cities have smarter leaders than we do.

  6. THE WOOLWORTH BUILDING IS NOT ON THE NATIONAL HISTORIC REGISTER. NOR WAS THE MONGOMERY HOTEL.PRESERVATION IS A COMMENDABLE GOAL, BUT TO PERSERVE BLIGHT AT THE EXPENSE OF HAVING A MAJOR AND IMPRESSIVE DOWNTOWN IS A DECISION AND DIRECTION THAT THE COMMUNITY SHOULD DISCUSS AND PROVIDE A CLEAR POLICY.

  7. I used to work at Woolworth when I was in High School. I was the candy girl up until they removed the candy counter. That was an interesting building, especially the basement.

  8. “That was an interesting building, especially the basement.”

    So tell us Michelle, don’t leave us in the dark! What was so interesting about the basement?

  9. First I wanted to say how happy I am to find this article about Woolworth Stores. That store was above and beyond the best store for the average income shopper,& was always filled with an array of merchandise for adults and children alike. I really wish they could have a revival of the stores in the future.Where can we buy stuff remininscent of Woolworth,like souvinier plates,Woolworth signs,et.cetera?

  10. The old Woolworth’s store, located on 21 South First Street, San Jose, CA, has become the newest home for the discount department chain store Ross Dress for Less. The grand-opening was held Friday, 16 July 2010. The store is approximately 24,000 sq. ft, on one level. At the store’s entrance,the Woolworth name will live on, as the original yellow and red tiles were left intact, as a reminder of it’s prior glory.

    As an aside, in visiting the new store on Saturday, 17 July 2010, I must say the only negative is the location is not car-friendly, when it comes to finding adequate free parking. Street parking is at a premium, but if you are a patron of the VTA Light Rail system, the good news is there is a stop right in front of the shop!

  11. way back in 1950’s, my Mom and Dad would drive from Inverness, Fl. to Ocala where there was a Woolworths store. We never left without getting a bag of choc and blonde fudge. It was the best and I have been to different places from Ca. to Tenn. and tried all the fudge. I haven’t been able to find any like the one at woolworths. Does anyone know who made it or if it is even made anymore. I would love to find it or the reciepe for it. Thanks so much Patricia Nobles