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Weekly Alibi Love at the Five and Dime

By Steven J. Westman

AUGUST 18, 1997:  My mother called me two weeks ago to let me know that the Woolworth's on the Santa Fe Plaza would be closing down. I hung up the phone and sat at my desk, heartbroken. I went home that night and borrowed my friend's Nanci Griffith CD, hit No. 5 on my player--"Love at the Five and Dime"--and played it over and over. It is a song about falling in love at a Woolworth's, which I did several years ago. That love is long gone, and very soon so will every Woolworth's store be.

In 1879, a man named Frank Woolworth opened what we once called a five-and-dime store. Spread all across the country, these stores sold sundries and canned goods, toys and records, as well as serving hamburgers and such right off the grill, followed up with a big ol' chocolate ice cream soda. As a kid growing up in Las Cruces and Albuquerque, I was in heaven over the idea that each town we moved to had my favorite place in the world. In college, there was a store in downtown Durango, Colo., which helped me keep under budget and well stocked as a poor first-year college student. Years later, I began to spend time in Santa Fe. Everyone in this town seemed to love and guard their Woolworth's on the Plaza. As many businesses moved in on the Plaza, like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor and Garduños, the locals became restless. Rumors of corporations like the Gap coming in and taking over the space would make residents turn red with anger. It was a regular topic of discussion: If the Woolworth's were to close, the biggest concern was "Where will we get a good Frito pie?"

I don't know why, but this place had the best Frito pie I have ever tasted. I know this is not an epicurean favorite of everyone, but it was definitely a favorite at the Woolworth's in Santa Fe. Tourists would hear about it from far away and venture in as part of their sightseeing. A $3 pie, loaded with Frito chips, yummy beans and extra jalapeños, a big fountain Coca-Cola, and I was a happy boy. It was over a couple of these tasty treats in the fall of 1989 that I fell in love for the first time. I knew it was going to happen, but it was here, in the narrow, orange booths lined up by the grill, that I looked into this person's eyes and my life changed. As short-lived as that turned out to be, I never stopped returning to the grill to get my fill of one of my favorite meals.

It's strange that at a time when Santa Fe is lamenting the loss of their old mercantile, a few miles away on the backside of the Sandia Mountains the residents of Cedar Crest are in an uproar about the possibility of a Wal-Mart store moving into their quaint neighborhood. The townsfolk feel that their sense of community will be hindered by a 139,000 square-foot retail store. There are more than 55 family owned businesses dotting the historic Turquoise Trail, and they want to keep it that way. It's a matter of history--the Woolworth's on the Plaza always fit into its surrounding with grace. But how can the Wal-Mart even hope to do the same?

I went in to visit my Woolworth's for the last time two Saturdays ago. In the midst of the Spanish Market on the Plaza, the store was in a flurry. They were selling everything at 30 percent off and people were snatching up items you know they didn't need. It reminded me of something Griffith says in her ballad about passing a Woolworth's in London as a child, dreaming of getting out of the car and "filling her suitcase with unnecessary plastic products." She also describes the smell of these stores as something like popcorn and bubble gum rubbed together on the bottom of a leather sole shoe. And at this particular moment, I knew what she meant.

I decided to get myself one last Frito pie and say goodbye. I pushed through the crowd toward the counter. All the booths were crowded with people--not the old locals I would have recognized after all these years, but weary shoppers who were not even eating. After standing in line for what seemed like forever, I glanced at the back of the register and saw taped there a flimsy paper plate serving as a poorly-written makeshift sign. It read: "No More Frito Pie."

I left, feeling warm and a little sad. Everything in my life that I have loved and lost still remains in a place in my heart. Woolworth's just went there. And Nanci was singing, "'Cuz it's closing time/And love's on sale tonight/At this five and dime."


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