Friday, 21 November 2008

Nobody Needs a Woolworth's Store These Days

So it looks like Woolworth's is finally on its uppers. The media are inevitably trying to roll this story into the general recession coverage but, while that won't have helped, most people will just be surprised the chain has made it through the last twenty years at all. For at least two decades, Woolies has been a shop out of time.

Up until the mid-'80s, a town centre shopping trip that didn't include Woolies was practically unthinkable. An American chain run with ruthless commercial hard-headedness, it still managed to be, in this country at least, as aimlessly British as the Triumph TR7, George Brown MP and Bruce's Big Night Out.

A corner shop that fancied itself as a supermarket, Woolies was the department store you could actually buy something from. Its situation was ideal. Proper department stores were prohibitively expensive and wouldn't touch most of what Woolies had to offer, and the big three supermarkets (Sainsbury's, Safeways and MacFisheries, natch) were still strictly stewing steak and greaseproof paper outlets. As long as the status quo was regulated, they were sitting pretty in a sizeable niche. Then all of a sudden Tesco's got Scalextric in, butchers stopped wearing straw hats and you could buy a first class stamp in a pub. Something had to give.

It's unlikely the shop has much personal significance for anyone under 25 now. The Pick 'n' Mix has hung around, though health and safety rules have made the sweet-buying process akin to retrieving spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor. but when the records went, there was no going back. If you wanted a 7" single before 1986 there was only one place you went. No-one stacked the Top 40 in a series of little wire-basket pigeonholes like Woolies.

Then there were the cassettes, either functionally blank or the shop's own brand of Chevron licences, heavy on the Gordon Lightfoot side of things. (Woolworths hosted a bewildering maze of loosely-affiliated own brands, including Lilliputian rock star outfitter Chad Valley, pint-size duffle coat fashion house Ladybird and deceptively posh-sounding jigsaw dispensary Winfield.) Oh, and the flick-through rack of chimp-on-the-potty posters, of course.

Which brings us to the gags. Woolies' cheap and cheerful atmosphere meant it was the standard reference point for Jasper Carrott and his topical ilk whenever a metaphor for something down-at-heel or shoddily made was required. Jokers of today, hopelessly disorganised as they are, can't decide between Netto, Lidl and Poundstretcher as the modern signifier of naff, and even if they did settle on one, it wouldn't drop as neatly into a gag as the word 'Woolies' did. It was a comedy store in the truest sense.

And there was the long-running gag that it took forever to get served, which as far as I know had no basis in fact, but it fitted the whole gloriously shabby image, which Woolies seemed, at least, to grin and bear. Try something like that with Tesco's and you'd soon be on the receiving end of a nocturnal visit from some large men with mirrored sunglasses and blue stripy baseball bats. They can make Nick Hancock push a trolley on the telly all they like, but the comedy's gone out of commerce.

Even I could tell something was up in 1986, when I finished browsing the ground floor (ie. the good bit) of the Woolies located in the corner of Aylesbury's dystopian concrete Friar's Square shopping centre (the perfect location), and ascended on the escalators past the second floor (plates, pans and toasters - boring) to the top floor, which housed white goods, self-assembly greenhouses, ladders you could carry round with ease and, most importantly, demonstration models of brown-cushioned garden swing-seats you could easily spend a quarter of an hour lounging on and reading Smash Hits until a brown-coated floorwalker told you to naff off out of it. This time, however, all that was to be found up there was a single, forlorn-looking Zanussi washer-dryer being loaded onto a trolley while, across the void of the vast, dark and empty floor, a Vildea supermop topped over. 'Sorry, son. Top floor's closed, now.' That was that, then.

So it's far too late to weep for Woolies (and Woolco), but it's always worth remembering the once wonderful place, especially at this time of year. Christmas suited Woolworth's. For one, it was possibly the only shop which actually looked classier after it was bedecked with a surfeit of tinsel. Secondly, the mood-predicting cellophane fish in their crackers actually worked (occasionally). And of course there were those filibustering seasonal advertising extravaganzas, taking up an entire commercial break, which, to some of us, suggested untold power and influence. Had they done a deal with Willie Whitelaw? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

If that's not enough, there is this fantastic site, run by Woolies themselves. Can you imagine the Stalinist edifice of Tesco ever giving two hoots about its history?