08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, AMERICANS roamed the aisles of Woolworth's five-and-dimes, prospecting for the essential as well as the eccentric. They came for hair nets, eyeliner, toothpicks, jigsaw puzzles and pet turtles—the goods often laid out more like rocks in a geology lab than wares in a retail store. And when customers got hungry, they bellied up to the counter for a grilled cheese and a malt. It was orderly and complete, everything under one roof. "The price is good, the food is good, and the people are nice," says Dorothy McCarren, 61, a grandmother who lives in New York City. "My family was four generations who went to Woolworth's."
No longer. The Woolworth's store, which once dominated budget retailing the way its familiar, big-lettered signs dotted Main Street, will become merely a memory next year. Citing huge losses over the last several years, the parent Woolworth Corp. announced on July 17 that its last 413 general stores—down from 2,850 in 1954—will close and the company will convert the best 100 locations into such profitable chains as Foot Locker. "If you can't adjust, you're going to fail," says Robert Sobel, a Hofstra University professor. Run-down and outmoded, the Woolworth's stores, he says, "should have been buried long ago."
Launched in 1879 by Frank Winfield Woolworth, the son of a potato farmer, the chain grew steadily to more than 1,000 outlets over the next 40 years. In 1913, the firm opened its landmark Manhattan office tower—at 792 feet, then the world's tallest. And though one store became a symbol of change when black students in Greensboro, N.C., staged a civil rights protest at its lunch counter in 1960, the chain itself failed to keep step with the times. Still, many people can't get used to the idea of life without a Woolworth's around the corner. "Woolworth's is America, it's tradition, it's meant to be everywhere," laments Eva Boykin, 58, of Brooklyn, one of 9,200 employees who will be out of a job. "They're not supposed to close."