Five & Dime Stores

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on March 18, 2010
David Mudd

Near the oak candy case at Berdine's Five & Dime in Harrisville, W.Va. (pop. 1,842), best friends Samantha Brundage, 9, and Quinn Burwell, 10, whisper about how to spend their nickels and dimes.

"I like the candy and rings," says Samantha as she ambles to the end of the counter where rows of rhinestone rings sparkle in black velvet trays. The costume jewelry costs from two dimes to $2.

"I bought a ring like this for my mom for her birthday," Quinn says. "It was $1.50. It's a diamond!"

Since 1908, wide-eyed youngsters and their parents have shopped for toys, treats and general merchandise—from paper dolls to playing cards and Toostie Rolls to tea kettles—at Berdine's, billed as the oldest dime store in America. While the world beyond the store's front porch marches onward, Berdine's remains a shop suspended in time.

"It hasn't changed," says Quinn's grandmother, Mary Lou Cox, 68, of Vienna, W.Va. (pop. 10,861), who roller-skated to the store when she was Quinn's age. "I'd climb up the steps and go right on in. They have the same old wooden floor and glass cases," Cox says. "I remember getting gifts for my mom, a little oil lamp and hankies."

Store manager and cashier Karen Harper, 46, still rings up oil lamps and floral cotton handkerchiefs with embroidered edges, along with a vast assortment of old-fashioned items, such as beaded hairnets, tin toys, doilies, cedar boxes, Sen-Sen breath mints and Rosebud Salve.

From dime to dollar stores
When purchases exceed $3.99, the limit on Berdine's antique cash register, Harper tallies sales by hand. Such high-dollar purchases were rare when Kit Carson Berdine and his brother, Lafayette, opened the store in Harrisville 102 years ago. At the time, nothing cost more than a dime.

Five-and-dime stores became a sensation across America after Frank Winfield Woolworth opened a store in Lancaster, Pa. (pop. 56,348), in 1879. Woolworth initiated the five-and-dime concept a year earlier while working at Moore & Smith dry goods store in Watertown, N.Y. To unload surplus goods, he created a counter loaded with a hodgepodge of nickel-priced items popular with price-conscious customers.

For decades, millions of Americans shopped at dime stores stocked with a variety of merchandise, from bobby pins to fishing bobbers and perfume to parakeets. Some stores had lunch counters where shoppers refreshed with a grilled cheese sandwich, a Frito pie or an ice cream sundae. Along with Woolworth's, successful dime-store retailers included McCrory, Newberry, S.S. Kresge, G.C. Murphy and Ben Franklin, plus a host of independent stores like Berdine's.

"The classic definition of the five-and-dime is that the stores charged 5 and 10 cents for any item in the store, which lost its accuracy by the 1920s," says Murray Forseter, 60, former publisher of Chain Store Age magazine. "Some would say that the dollar stores are the equivalent of the old five-and-dimes."

In the 1960s, large discount stores began to replace dime stores. In the 1970s, suburban shopping malls dealt another blow, since most dime stores—or variety stores, as they sometimes were called—were located downtown.

Still, a few traditional dime stores survive in small towns across America, where their old-fashioned—yet generally practical—merchandise provides a glimpse into the past.

A stroll down memory aisle
One cherished survivor is Vidler's 5 & 10, in East Aurora, N.Y. (pop. 6,673), where Beverly Vidler,  55, manages the store opened by her grandfather, Robert Vidler, in 1930. "We're almost like a form of entertainment," Vidler says about the sprawling, two-story store packed with change purses and jigsaw puzzles, craft patterns and coloring books, and where a dime buys a galloping ride on Sandy, the mechanical horse.

In downtown Branson, Mo. (pop. 6,050), customers at Dick's 5 & 10 are surprised to find heart-shaped bottles of Blue Waltz Perfume and old-fashioned wire pants stretchers that put creases in trousers.

"This is what retail was 50 years ago," says owner Steve Hartley, 48, about the 170,000 different items sold in the 1961 store. "Some customers spend three or four hours browsing and reminiscing in the aisles," he adds.

The story is the same at Berdine's Five & Dime, where shoppers find packages of Black Jack chewing gum, looms for weaving potholders and a tub brimming with bundles of sassafras roots—merchandise from yesteryear that sparks memories at every turn.

"People walk into Berdine's and say, 'This reminds me of the store where I grew up,'" says owner Dean Six, 53, who bought the store from Fred Berdine in 1983.

A gas heating stove stands in the back of the store near an antique oak desk where Six's mother, Eleanor, 73, keeps the shop's books while Harper greets customers.

"Can I help you in any way, shape or form?" Harper asks when a shopper walks in the door in search of a stopper for a saltshaker. Harper goes directly to a bin of rubber and cork stoppers and finds a replacement.

For nearly 30 years, Harper has taught young customers how to play with the toys that their parents and grandparents enjoyed—to blow a 25-cent water-filled bird whistle, play a game of jacks and wind a tin cat that chases a ball.

Berdine's sweetest attraction, though, is a glass-fronted case stocked with orange slices, licorice, root beer barrels and chocolate candies. Like generations of children, Samantha and Quinn repeatedly mosey back to the candy case to peer inside.

"I'd like 1 ounce of chocolate-covered walnuts, please," says Samantha, digging into her purse for the coins she earned folding laundry and cleaning her bedroom.

Harper scoops and weighs about a dozen chocolate clusters, slips them into a small brown paper sack and neatly folds the sacks flap so the candy wont spill. Price: 48 cents.

Thrilled with their purchases, the girls giggle on their way out the front door. They'll soon be back with more pocket change to spend on treats and trinkets at the century-old five-and-dime.