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Come back to the 5 & Dime : America's Independent Variety Stores Fight for Survival

July 11, 1988|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS

At La Canada Variety, children are still allowed behind the checkout counter to ponder their candy selections from the shelves filled with red licorice vines, candy necklaces and bubblegum cigars.

The little store still stocks rows of ribbon and zippers, cap guns, hairnets, plate hangers and eyelet-edged pillow cases stamped with embroidery patterns. Its pegboard shelves hold bits of nostalgia in a way that is seldom seen today.

The independent variety store--or the five and dime in pre-inflation days--is going the way of library paste and cherry phosphates. Rising rents, owners' old age and the changing retail scene have forced thousands of independents out of business. Those that have survived credit their service, merchandise mix and prices for their longevity.

"We don't hold out a great deal of hope for the independent variety store unless he is well established and well financed," said Marvin A. Smith Sr., executive vice president of the National Assn. of Variety Stores, a Chicago-based trade group. "They're a dying breed."

Back in 1946, when Smith joined the trade group, which represents independent variety store owners in small towns and rural areas, independent five-and-dimes numbered roughly 20,000. "Now, I don't think there are 6,000," he said.

The dime store was once an innovative concept in retailing. Shoppers could find a variety of everyday goods at low prices. Stationery, sewing notions, toys, health and beauty aids, dishes and some apparel remain the staples of the variety store.

"If somebody really wants a purple zipper, he can go to his dime store," Smith said. "And if he doesn't have it, he will order it for you."

The five-and-dime lunch counters offered not only a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate malt but often the only casual meeting place in town.

But in the 1960s "discounting became a magic word," giving rise to the discount department store and other low-priced retailers, Smith said.

"Wal-Mart and K mart have been doing a number on us," he said. The independent operator "doesn't have the tools to fight them. Those people can spread their advertising costs throughout the chain."

The blurring of distinctions between different types of retailers has also hurt the five-and-dime, said Thomas R. Hale, president and chief executive of 99 Only Stores, which opened its first store in Los Angeles six years ago. Now the chain has 23 stores, many of them former independents or small chains.

"Grocery and drugstores are getting into non-food merchandise in a big way, and that's really put the variety stores out of business," said Hale, whose stores sell nothing for more than 99 cents. "The variety store used to be tremendous. It was all over the country."

In Southern California, very few independent variety stores remain. A survey of half a dozen variety stores listed in the most recent Southern California phone books turned up empty store fronts, new construction sites and recently built mini-malls--but no variety stores. The chains, from Woolworth to locals such as Cornet Stores, dominate the scene.

Mike Hahn figures he would still be in the variety store business if it weren't for the spate of earthquakes Southern California has experienced during the past year.

Earthquake damage to his aging brick building on First Street in East Los Angeles forced Hahn to close his 13-year-old Hahn's 5 10 & 25 Store. He now operates a lock and key business out of a paint store across the street.

"You can't find it anymore, the dime store, because a lot of grocery stores carry the same items," Hahn said.

Rising rents also have put many independents out of business, Smith said. "You can't sell 10-cent merchandise today and pay rent and make ends meet," he said.

And sometimes, old age is the culprit. "When the old man decides to hang it up, the kids are too educated to want to do it," Smith said.

La Canada Variety faced that dilemma last month when longtime proprietor Ed Glynn decided to retire. He and his wife, Ida, had opened their first variety store in 1953, but Glynn closed that one 14 years ago after his wife's death and continued to operate their second store on Foothill Boulevard.

Glynn's daughter-in-law, Pam Glynn, and a partner, Colleen Lombard, decided to begin running the store on June 16.

"If we hadn't taken this on it would have closed," Glynn said.

The survival of La Canada Variety "is all attributed to the service," she said. "My father-in-law has given to this town, the schools, the churches and everyone else, exceptional service."

La Canada resident Lynn Laak praised the store's selection of merchandise.

"They always have the hard-to-find things," she said. "I was looking for a shoehorn when my son was in a cotillion, just a metal shoehorn, and I couldn't find one anywhere." La Canada Variety had some.

"My children, when they were younger, used to be in here all the time," said Laak, who was buying a set of notebook dividers.

Muriel Clark said the store hasn't changed much since she started working there nearly 19 years ago.

"We stock everything we can stuff in here," she said. "And people are so wonderful. They say, 'thank you for being here, and don't ever close.' "

The thinning ranks of variety stores has not been good for the National Assn. of Variety Stores, which has about 500 members operating about 1,000 stores.

"We used to have conventions, we used to have trade shows," Smith said. "Now we're in the situation where we're not sure we're going to be in business this time next year."

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