When I was growing up, there was a five-and-ten store, also known as a five-and-dime store, near my house. I’m not sure of its actual name; we just called it the five-and-ten. After waiting an eternity, one day, I was finally old enough to ride my bike to that store, with a friend. The store was located in a strip center, on a busy street several blocks away, so that was a big deal. The fact that there weren’t any sidewalks on most of our route made it doubly daring. We had to ride on the shoulder, and pull off the road if too many cars started coming. Once on the main drag, we could drive through several parking lots to get to our destination, but that involved watching for cars backing out. The whole ordeal was death-defying.
We parked our bikes in front of the store, no locks needed, and went in to find everything we did and didn’t need. The place was stocked full of items in every category imaginable. Most importantly, they sold bandanas of every color. For me and my friend Lylas, bandanas were mandatory accessories; I wore one in my hair nearly every day. I'd fold it diagonally, into a triangle, put it on top of my head, then tie the ends together, underneath my hair at the back of my neck.
After taking care my fashion needs, I’d make my way to the embroidery supplies. They sold wall hangings, handkerchiefs, dish towels, etc., with printed pictures on them, to be embroidered. But I didn’t need any thread; I did liquid embroidery - a craft for the sewing challenged, the impatient, and the needle phobic. I simply traced over the drawings with the paint pens. My work has stood the test of time; they look as colorful today as they did over 40 years ago.
Kitchen wares, bathroom wares, and even underwear were for sale. But I’d never be caught dead buying underwear there, or even looking through the underwear bins; there were too many other customers who might see what I was doing. It wasn’t like Sears, where lingerie had its own department, for Pete’s sake. Some other kid from school might walk in. Maybe even a guy I liked. And then, I’d have to quit school and move away to some foreign land. It wasn’t worth the risk. Cosmetics, office supplies, toys, candy – those were on the safe list.
The five-and-ten was like Woolworths, but smaller. Years later, when I went to the Woolworths in town, it was the mother of all five-and-tens. It was too far for me to travel there by bike, so I went there only when Mom took me. There was so much merchandise, it would’ve taken all day to see everything, and I didn’t know where everything was. So, my nameless five-and-ten was easier.
Not far down the road from Woolworths, was Abel Drugs. It was a treat to sit at their counter and have a chocolate malt. And, as we all know, everything tastes better when you’re spinning on a bar stool. My son, Cowboy, inherited his love for bar stools; that’s often his first choice when we go to a diner. Even as a teenager, he’d go for a spin, along with me and Flash. It’s physically impossible to sit on a diner bar stool and not spin.
Cowboy has also inherited my love for five-and-tens. When we go to Fredericksburg, Texas, we often visit Dooley’s 5, 10, & 25 Cent Store. Like my childhood store, there’s a little bit of everything. Top priority is our looking for vintage candy, such as Beemans gum and old fashioned cherry sours.
Closer to home, my favorite place to go for candy is The Chocolate Bar, in Houston’s Rice Village. Of course, in addition to yesteryear’s candies, they sell a wide assortment of edibles covered with or carved from chocolate. Among their old-school candies is one of my favorites - candy cigarettes. When I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend to be decadent, trying to look cool as we “smoked.”
One day, a friend and I met in Rice Village to go to lunch. But first, we decided to have appetizers at The Chocolate Bar. Since it was during my Four-Year Chocolate Fast, I opted for a box of candy cigarettes. Immediately, I felt that old thrill as I hollered across the store, “Let’s take our picture with these babies hanging out of our mouths!”
She laughed, then indulged me. We tried to look tough - a “bad cop/bad cop” mug. But it didn’t work, with her wearing a girly headband, and there being a bright purple wall in the background, we still looked too “good cop.” But we were a 10 on the Groovy Scale.
While there, I continued my years-long search for a Marathon Bar. It’s a long, chocolate-covered caramel bar that has two strands intertwined - like chocolate DNA. I haven’t found one yet. Perhaps it’s a lost art. But wax lips still abound. I’ve shown Cowboy how to bite down on the little tab on the back to hold the lips in place. Seeing the wrinkles on my aging pucker, I’m going out to get some today. They’re a lot cheaper than Botox. All those people in Hollywood wasting their money, and I can pay $1.29 for the same look.
While biking with Flash and Cowboy several years ago, my mind flashed back to my days of riding to the store. I remembered there was a gas station store nearby, so I told Flash, “Let’s cut through that apartment complex to get to the store.”
We rode on the concrete until the road ran out – then the real fun began. Over a bumpy trail, probably worn in the grass from countless kids’ trips after school, we bounced and laughed. Although, off-road riding wasn’t as easy as it used to be for me.
“Go ahead,” I called, breathlessly, to Flash and Cowboy, “I’ll catch up later.”
We parked our bikes on the store’s porch, then walked in to get drinks, chips, and, of course, candy. Other customers didn’t realize they were witnessing a monumental occasion – my boy’s first bike trip to the store – but Flash and I were beaming. After eating some of our treasures, we put what was left in a plastic bag that hung from my handlebars. It’s the only way to travel. We pedaled back home, Flash and I knowing we’d taught Cowboy something essential.
Lately, in the midst of my on-line Christmas shopping, I’ve missed that old five-and-ten. If I had the energy and the money, maybe I’d open my own. I’d have plenty of room on the porch for bikes, and even an outside area for dogs who came with their owners. Of course, it seems not as many kids ride bikes these days, and most young people I know aren’t into bin shopping. So perhaps most of my clientele would be big kids – 50 and older. It could be our new hangout. We’d leave our grown kids at home to fend for themselves, or our younger kids with a sitter, as we’d head to my Five-and-Ten Store. I’d offer a chocolate deli, bar stools that spin, milkshakes, malts, and lots of Marathon Bars and candy cigarettes. Bins would be packed with magazines, vinyl record albums, bandanas, and sundries for every room of the house. The underwear bins would be in the back corner of the store, with lids on them.
We’d talk about the old days, have a chocolate malt, spin at the bar, peruse the comic books, and buy some new lips. On Friday nights, we’d have hula hoop contests for those who can still move like that. Saturdays would be 50 percent off days for all customers who’ve lived five decades or more, and we’d always be closed on Sundays.
I’ll let you know when we open for business.