Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 12, 2008

Back in time to the five-and-dime

"I miss my little ALCO," I said wistfully.

"Mom, you say that every time we pass by," youngest daughter Katie responded.

It's true. Even if I don't say it out loud, I think it when I pass the closed-up store on Manhattan's Anderson Avenue. Weeds are growing up along the side of the building and in the parking lot cracks. A couple of wire stands that probably held magazines and videos sit outside the front door. A broken-down wood pallet is propped against an outside wall.

The last time I shopped there was shortly before it closed. A receipt I kept from that visit shows that I bought two K-State throws for $12 a piece, quite a discount from the original price of $19.99 each. The bottom of the receipt, dated March 22, 2008, reads: "Due to store closing, no checks accepted. All sales are final. Thank you for shopping ALCO."

I loved to shop ALCO. It wasn't as large as the big box stores, so it had more of a hometown feel to it. It had one of the best selections of K-State merchandise in town, stocking all manner of purple clothing, blankets, mugs, key rings and even dog collars and leashes.

But I didn't go just for the K-State stuff. I also bought a red rug for my office when ALCO went through its carpet and rug phase. I purchased cat food, cleaning items, toilet tissue, shampoo, Barbie dolls, picture frames, Halloween costumes, greeting cards, magazines, cereal, dish towels - you name it and I probably bought it there.

And ALCO was convenient - right on my way if I needed to pick something up before going home from work.

But perhaps it's the nostalgia factor more than anything else that makes me pine for "my little ALCO." When I was little, I shopped at similar stores, such as Woolworth's and TG&Y. I recall buying a tiny plastic baby doll - probably at most three inches long - at the Duckwall's in Council Grove when we were visiting Aunt Edith. The doll had moveable arms and legs and eyes that opened and closed.

Katie even admitted that she liked ALCO. She said she particularly liked the smell when she walked through the doors. She described it as kind of like tires or plastic, which somehow doesn't sound all that inviting to me.

She remembers buying Valentine's day candy and mechanical pencils - the kind that looked like they had ribbons running through them. She said ALCO was the only place she found "crazy" pencils like that.

From what I read on the Internet, the concept of the variety store originated with the five-and-ten-cent store, or dimestore as they were later called. F. W. Woolworth, which opened its first stores in the late 1870s, was one of the first American retailers to put merchandise out so the shopping public could handle it without the assistance of a sales clerk. Mother-in-law Donna, now 98, still talks about how as a kid she loved to go up and down the aisles of her local five-and-dimes in Appleton, Wisconsin, picking out Christmas presents for her parents and siblings.

Other one-time chain dimestores include Ben Franklin, Kresge's, TG&Y and Walton's Five and Dime. Kresge's and Walton's made the transition to what retailers call discount department stores and changed their names to Kmart and Wal-Mart. But Duckwall-ALCO, founded by A. L. Duckwall in 1901 as a general merchandising operation in Abilene, Kansas, has struggled for some time to make the transition.

But, like so many other people, I often drove by "my little ALCO" to shop at the mall or Target or Penney's where the selection was greater.

And husband Art? Well, when he sees a Wal-Mart semi on the highway, he will say, "Vaaal-Mart," with a sort of reverential tone and smile that clearly indicates where his loyalties lie.

So, ALCO is gone just as others that couldn't compete with the big box stores have disappeared.

But I still miss it! It's just not the same without "my little ALCO."

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