Saturday, February 21, 2009

RIP Woolworths

When I was growing up in England in the 1970s we didn't have a visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory to aspire to.
The closest thing was the pick 'n' mix section of Woolworths, a vast glittering realm of cheap candies and hardboiled sweets, normally positioned near the door that helped cement its nickname of 'pick 'n' steal.'
I never met a kid who hadn't swiped at least a couple of candies and even parents turned a blind eye.
In those days you could buy enough candies to fill a small wheelbarrow for 50p.
Like Woolworths itself the chocolates in the pick 'n' mix aisle would melt under the glare of a connoisseur, although there weren't too many of those around until the '80s.
It's, therefore, mind boggling to imagine a bag of "Woolies" pick 'n' mix selling for £14,500 as one did on eBay this weekend - the highest of 115 bids that were received.
The 800 gram bag was sold by Ed Adams, the former manager of the Petts Wood store in Kent, who picked it up before his store closed for the last time.
I can imagine Mr. Adams standing in the store with a large Gothic bunch of keys in his hand, ready to lock up the last store in the country for the last time, switching off the lights strip by strip on a cold winter night.
His tear smudged eye falls on a bag of candy the liquidators had missed on the empty shelves and and he picks it up and rescues it.
But I'm sure it didn't happen like that.
Still the demise of Woolworths, with the last of its 807 British stores closing on Jan. 5, is sad for anyone who grew up with the Great British institution that was actually American.
The psychological loss was described in an article in the International Herald Tribune.
F.W. Woolworth closed down in 2001 in the United States, reinventing itself as Foot Locker Inc., but the British company - long separated from its U.S. parent - remained as what the article described as a "symbol of something, a vestige of a simpler past when the country had few department stores and no giant retailers, when shopping still seemed like a treat."
In other words Woolworths was always a synonym for mediocrity.
The goods were unremarkable and the staff were notoriously "Woolly headed," as my mother would remark.
If Marks & Spencer was a grammar school boy in a blazer whose dad drove a Rover, Woolworths was the scruffy kid from the unfashionable side of town who was ferried to school in a battered Vauxhall Viva.
But people get nostalgic about Woolworths because it was like Britain itself back in the '70s, a country where pasta was an exotic food, a social life was a pair of roller skates in a scruffy church hall and nightlife was the baleful light of a fish and chip shop at the end of the street.
The demise of Woolworths is not just the fault of the recent recession. The store struggled for an identity in the 1990s and hit on a new logo and wooden floors.
When that failed it went for more wooden floors.
Now it's gone it's strange to read on its website: "Coming back soon, better than ever."
There's even tentative suggstion left hanging in the post retail ether, that pick 'n' mix could be sold on line.
I'm all for nostalgia but this is surely wishful thinking. For a start how can kids possible steal candies on the internet?

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