There, within a few steps of each other, are outdoor grills, socks, plastic chairs, greeting cards, backpacks, photo frames, vases, dresses, wrapping paper, file boxes and party balloons. "There" is the Woolworth's store in the heart of downtown Buffalo, with just about everything imaginable for sale in a "small box" retail space. Sure, there's a cafeteria and a watch repair place. And downstairs you can buy a bicycle. Nothing fancy, but lots of variety.
But in the retail business, change is the single constant. Later this year, Buffalo's Woolworth's store will close along with all the 400 "five-and-dime" stores still carrying the name. Woolworth's was a fixture in many of America's downtowns in their bustling past. No more. Given shifting tastes, it may be a miracle Woolworth's stores have lasted this long.
Woolworth's is special to Buffalo because its corporate history flows together with the history of this city and its venerable Knox family. In the late 1880s, Frank W. Woolworth and his cousin Seymour H. Knox opened a store in Lancaster, Pa., modeled after a store Woolworth had founded in Watertown. Everything was priced at between five and ten cents.
As the concept grew, Knox came to Buffalo in 1888 to start his own S.H. Knox store, which had branched out to 98 stores in the United States and 13 in Canada before merging into the F.W. Woolworth Co. in 1912. Knox was vice president of the new firm at the time of his death in 1915. He had banking and industrial interests here as well.
His family left lasting monuments in this community. His son, the late Seymour H. Knox Jr., provided the world-class collection of contemporary art that sets Buffalo's Albright Knox Art Gallery apart from all others. His grandson, the late Seymour H. Knox III, founded the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.
Woolworth's was also special to Buffalo because its downtown store seemed to last through the years in the face of changing retail fashions. The big department stores died one by one, suburban malls grew bigger with each new venture, big-box stores came into vogue, but there was always downtown Woolworth's to count on.
Despite the chain's failure, the Buffalo store has been a solid money-maker right up to the present. There is optimism that its space will be filled by a new tenant. The landlord has a showing of interest from at least one prospect. Hope for the best. Downtown already has an oversupply of vacant retail space.
Finally, Woolworth's holds a special niche because it was a shopping spot for low-income people living near downtown. They could walk there and find a wide array of no-frills merchandise. For them, the regulars, Woolworth's will be missed for practical reasons, not nostalgic ones.
Of course, the true five-and-dime concept left the scene long ago. The Woolworth's price limit was raised to 20 cents in 1932, and all limits were removed in 1935. But the variety store concept lives on here and there. Vidler's in East Aurora is an example.
Maybe another five and dime can find its way to Buffalo's Main Street in the place where Woolworth's has thrived for so long.