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The 1940s Still Live at Luncheonette (and the Burger's Still a Bargain, Hon)

January 30, 1986|MARY BARBER

When the Alhambra Woolworth store opened on Main Street in October, 1945, it had two floors, 126 employees, a big curved glass entry and a lunch counter that stretched almost the length of the building.

It stood like a beacon that identified the heart of a bustling downtown business district.

Forty years later almost everything in downtown Alhambra has changed, but 1945 lives on at the Woolworth lunch counter.

For more than three decades, people walked in from Penney's and from Lieberg's Department Store down the street, from neighboring hardware and furniture stores, and from a big telephone company building around the corner where hundreds of people worked.

In the pre-plastic, pre-takeout era, they lined up at the lunch counter where waitresses called them "Hon." They were given metal forks and spoons to eat food that was served on china plates; they drank from cups that came with saucers, and they spooned ice cream from tall glass dishes.

Penney's and Lieberg's closed long ago, and so did most of the nearby furniture and hardware stores. Telephone company employees were transferred from the big building when it was converted to house electronic equipment. All the stores a block away were razed and replaced by Alhambra's big, new shopping mall. More than a dozen takeout food stands and coffee shops line Main Street, where there always seem to be more cars than pedestrians.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 2, 1986 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 2 Column 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in Thursday's San Gabriel Valley section incorrectly stated that Liebergs Department Store in Alhambra had closed. The store is open for business at 421 E. Main St.

Woolworth's, although down to one floor and 16 employees, looks the same with its quaint "luncheonette" sign on the curved glass entry. It sounds the same, with the clank of silverware, glasses and dishes and waitresses calling customers "Hon." It smells the same--breakfast bacon in the morning, hamburger all afternoon.

A bacon-and-egg breakfast costs $1.99 and hamburgers from $1.65 to $2.60.

"It makes a profit, that's why it survives," said Donald A. Dill, West Coast director of personnel and public relations for the Woolworth Co.

Although many old Woolworth lunch counters have disappeared, Dill said, the company is seeing a resurgence in downtown businesses in many cities, including Alhambra. He said the store is targeted for refurbishing, which could mean eventual replacement of the long counter with "something of a more elegant nature, which usually means we put in booths. Then we'd bring in an updated menu and charge $3 and $4 for hamburgers. "We're watching Alhambra, and it's coming alive," said Dill. "It's just a matter of time before we go in there and make some changes."

On an average day, Ruby Young serves from 80 to 100 customers between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. She has been at the Alhambra store since the big Woolworth's in downtown Pasadena closed six years ago. She had worked at the lunch counter there for 23 years.

"It seems like a club here, sometimes," Young said. "Customers and I have known each other for years, and we know a lot about our families. It just makes my day, being around them."

On the rare days when all 27 counter seats are filled, customers sit in a few booths at the far end. But they can't see what's going on up front, so it isn't the same.

"Ruby, put on some onion and tomato, will you?" called a woman as she watched her hamburger sizzle. "Sure, Millie," Ruby said.

"I just came by to see if you're being good, Ruby," another said. "How's your sister?" Ruby asked in return.

"I have to go to work. To be continued tomorrow," said a woman, reluctantly breaking up a conversation.

"Bye, Ginny," Ruby said as she moved down the counter to an elderly couple, who sat without touching the empty dishes that signaled an end to their meal. "Are you all right?" Ruby asked.

"No hurry. We got all the time," the man said. And so they sat for a while, smiling and listening to the clatter around them.

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