Thursday, November 11, 2010

Woolworths Lunch Counter

Some of us from the old days, those days before the invention of highway stores and malls, remember when "going shopping" meant a trip to Washington Avenue which, then, was a vibrant shopping center. The catch-phrase was "I'm going downtown" which invariably meant that collection of chain stores, shops and boutiques within a couple of blocks of Town Hall. We were always careful to make the necessary verbal distinction between "I'm going downtown - Newark" which was self-explanatory and "I'm going downtown" which always meant Washington Avenue.

The "Avenue" was usually crowded during business hours. Parking was a challenge, there was only street-side parking, no public parking lots, and traffic was heavy. To say that it was a congested area is a classic example of understatement. Many townsfolk would prefer to take a bus to avoid the crush of auto traffic even though one would have to lug bags full of purchases home on the bus and then on foot from the bus stop to the house. But we were a hardy lot and it didn't seem all that difficult. It toughened us up, especially us cranky little kids who's feet would hurt after two or three hours of tagging along behind Mom as she made the rounds. If we had the audacity to sit down in the middle of a store aisle, we could expect a sharp look followed by an imperious command, "stand up and walk .. you can't sit there like that !"

You could buy most anything you needed on Washington Avenue in those days. Shoes could be bought at Jack and Jill's, Paul's Shoe Store and Miles. Men's wear was available at Michael's; ladies fashions at Mae Moon's, Edmar's, Reinhardt's or Mary Oliver's. There was Rubin Brothers, Singer Sewing Center, Charles the Jeweler, the Star Record Shop where you could listen to the latest 78 rpm hit on a turntable in a booth before buying, an A & P, Sears and Reeds Drug Store, just to name a few. But best of all, there was Woolworths at 177 Washington. Woolworths was best, if you were a kid, because they had a neat toy department and if you begged or pleaded enough, you might go home with a marvelous tchotchke that could amuse you for hours. They always had a great collection of glue-it-together models and toy lead soldiers. Yes, we played with lead toys back then and didn't even die from it.

There is a wonderful, old story about Belleville's Woolworths that might even be partly true. What is true is that it was such a good Cinderella story that Mothers would tell it to their young daughters at every opportunity. We are told that Belleville's sweetheart and famous songstress, Connie Francis, once worked at Woolworths on Washington Avenue. Perhaps it was a summer job, the details are sketchy at best. What it had to do with her becoming rich and famous doesn't register on a scale of one to ten, but the story was so good that Mothers all over town could say to their girls whenever Ms Francis was heard on the radio, "Listen, there's that lady from our 5 and 10. See how famous she has become ? You could do that too if you practice a lot and get a job at Woolworths to pay for the lessons."

And then, like an oasis in the desert, just when your aching feet couldn't take another step, there was Woolworths lunch counter where you could sit up on a stool and eat. You could order a sandwich for between 30¢ to 60¢. Remember how each sandwich was served with two slices of dill pickle and a small handful of potato chips ? A Coke was a dime and came with a squirt of lime syrup if you wanted it. And then, if you had not been too troublesome to Mom, you might hit the jack-pot and get a "super jumbo" banana split for 39¢. It was a good lunch for around a dollar or less depending on how lavish you were. And don't forget the customary 10¢ tip.

Wouldn't it be great to go back there one more time ? Well, maybe we can't, but here's the next best thing .. an old, 1957 Woolworths lunch counter menu has turned up and it is shown here for your enjoyment. Maybe it will rekindle a few old memories. Click on menu to enlarge for easy reading.

Woolworths Lunch Counter Menu - 1957.