David Butterfield

A tribute to Woolworths, the naff hero of the high street

A tribute to Woolworths, the naff hero of the high street
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Won’t somebody think of the Woolwennials this weekend? Precisely one decade has passed since Britain lost the true hero of the high street. And for those aged over 24, whose childhood weekends were wasted in its labyrinth of kitsch, this Woolworths anniversary stirs up communal grief. So spare a knowing nod to fellow rustlers of the DVD bargain-bucket, a reassuring squeeze to the hand clutching the cola-bottle scooper, and a sympathetic cheek-stroke to the vacant-eyed browser of discounted superhero pyjamas. Together, somehow, we’ll muddle on.

Nostalgia, like love, is blind – and the world is filled with hackneyed wasn’t-it-wonderful articles of bygone Britain. And, yes, Woolworth worship is the very stuff of satire. But the store was fundamentally different precisely because it was fundamentally flawed. Woolworths didn’t try to be anything: it bobbed along as a jack-of-all-trades but master of non-essentials. Everything you didn’t quite need was there. If you wanted something well made, you went to a specialist; if you wanted something well done, you went to the expert; if after that you still wanted something, well, you went to Woolies.

The company ethos was ‘if they don’t sell it, we will’. Stuck with the awkward remainder on the shopping list – a birdbath, seven yards of strawberry lace, a four-foot filing cabinet, and a replacement wheelbarrow wheel – you knew Woolworths would sort you out. But the wheelbarrow wheels only come in a triple pack, the birdbath was indoor use only, and the cabinet was unashamedly Disney-themed. Regularly marooned in the Lancaster Woolworths during that interminable hinterland between school and a rural bus service, I came to love the ‘yeah-but-no’ insouciance of the store. You could buy paint but no paintbrush, printers but no paper, sweets but no sustenance – unless, that is, your branch had a lightly-greased in-store ‘luncheonette’.

One of a handful of chain stores to merit a universal nickname, Woolies was organised chaos in red-and-white livery. Its sillily massive premises stretched into oblivion, the horizon meeting a row of velvet cushions and VHS. Hectares of pick-n-mix were delivered by nocturnal chinook. An array of behind-the-curve toys proudly declared their Chad Valley origins (Birmingham, I guess, not Bahr el-Ghazal). Aisle after aisle threw up coathangers, cosmetics, calendars and crumpet racks. Folk wisdom told you that ten pounds carefully spent in Woolworths could keep you alive in suburban scrubland for ten months. But, however amateurish and eclectic its stock, Woolworths was reliably middle-of-the-road. It transcended class divisions, and no-one was surprised to see anyone else in it.

No-one of sound mind would wittingly create a store based on the three staples of children-only clothing, professional bric-a-brac, and novelty sweets. But, once there, it effortlessly inveigled its way into British life. And, like the best British traditions, Woolworths was a foreign import whose roots were soon irrelevant. In 1909, Frank Winfield Woolworth, self-proclaimed ‘world’s worst salesman’, followed 30 years of American trade by launching a UK store in Liverpool, to riotous acclaim. Fifty years later, a thousand stores were scattered across Britain. A hundred years later, however, and the 807 branches still on the go couldn’t find a buyer for a single pound. What the hell happened?

Well, that sorry slide came late. From its boom in the 1920s, Woolworths opened hundreds of stores, often architectural triumphs in their own right. The Spectator heralded it as a shop of the future, even if it stocked that vulgar, new-fangled material of ‘plastic’. In the 1940s, it was a staple ‘low-price chain store’, although its success could be tragic. In 1944, London’s New Cross store, packed with a crowd for its new tin saucepans, was hit by a V2 rocket: 168 shoppers died in the largest single-strike loss of life in the UK. When, fuelled by heady post-war expansion, the art-deco frontages gave way to plate-glass futurism, hackles were raised. John Betjeman bemoaned in his Spectator column that contemporary stores now looked like ‘the façade of a garage on a by-pass’.

But few minded. Instead, throughout its lifespan, Woolworths was lovingly referenced by pioneers of music hall, rock, and punk; it inspired the style of Bowie, and provided lyrical filler for the boyband and Britpop fallout. Fittingly enough for a nation where man is measured by the number of his first Now! compilation, Woolworths was the country’s communal compere. In the sixties, it ran its own record label (of knocked-down cover versions), and until the rise of specialist competitors in the nineties, it was the nation’s lead music retailer. The Woolwennial’s first record was necessarily bought there, whether on 7-inch, tape, CD, or MiniDisc (bless ‘em). For many a year, Woolies stocked on its wall the week’s top 75 singles – a mural so spectacularly naff as to please Henry VIII.

For most of its lifespan, the annual income from children’s pocket money would have equated the GDP of France. Even Woolworths advertising was unsurpassable. Forget the maudlin warbling of John Lewis and co.: a Woolies Xmas advert could provide two-minutes of unadulterated festive fare, however matter-of-fact. I mean, of course, the golden-age adverts of the seventies and eighties, not the grim final days when Jackie Chan stared in outrage at furry animal genitalia.

But by the 1990s, when Woolies first came on my radar, it was clearly on the way out. The Spectator’s arbitress of elegance, Dot Wordsworth, lamented in 1996 that the brand had become a ‘byword for the tawdry’. Come the twenty-first century, the realisation dawned fully that the pell-mell miscellany of Woolworths could be cobbled together instead from Our Price, BHS, MFI, Toys’R’us and Comet. A list of competitors so formidable that, come 2019, they’ve all disappeared too – and HMV is set to follow. Needless to say, the internet revolution was one step too far.

While its ill-conceived out-of-town branches (Woolco and Big W!) morphed into Asdas and Tescos, many of the high-street Woolworth stores have failed to be filled. Unsurprisingly, premises that could have comfortably housed a range of Boeings left behind gaping hollows. Some are now occupied by unconvincingly expansive branches of Boots, Primark and Next, but many are empty memorials to a bygone era. For no other store can carry off such a bewildering, bizarre bazaar as Woolworths in its heyday: Poundland keeps the bar too low, Aldi tediously overplays the food, and WHSmith has lost the plot. Wilko (once Wilkinson's) is perhaps the most convincing pretender to the throne.

Little surprise, then, that the last bag of Woolies pick-n-mix, frantically scooped as the doors closed to the Petts Wood store, reached almost £15,000 on Ebay in 2009. For those were simpler times than our own enlightened age: we now know that candy sticks are gateway drugs to smoking, flying saucers pave the way to illegal highs and Lovehearts legitimise sexual harassment.

So, my thoughts are with you, fellow Woolwennials, equally forged by a store experience that was never all that good, but never like anything else.