THE GOODS : In Praise of Dime Stores : At the Local Woolworth's, You Can Hide From the Mall Rats and Find Remnants of Christmases Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a gray gloomy afternoon, full of irresolute rain clouds that occasionally snarl and spit petulantly onto this holiday-season Saturday. I am pacing the edge of Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, alone, hoping that a bit of Christmas spirit will rise in a gust behind me and push me into merriment and inspired gift selection. So far, I have to admit, I am feeling pretty much at one with those rain clouds.

I stand on the northwest corner at Arizona, eyeing the cowboy-booted, Lycra-clad crowd hip-hop its festive way around the carts shiny with cappuccino machines and peace sign necklaces. Having grown up in a small town where the cinders versus salt debate began each year somewhere during November, I have a hard time with the L.A. Christmas anyway, and the sight of an oversized elf on a skateboard doesn't help much.

Three girls bump past me in an adolescent flash of metallic lipstick, navel rings and Kenneth Cole baby backpacks. "I love Christmas," says one. "It's so, so . . . Christmassy." "Is there a cash machine around here?" says one of the others. I shiver slightly and rock forward on my heels, once, twice, three times, like a 10-year-old on the high-dive, then I take a deep breath and plunge.

Still maintaining lonely rain cloud mien, I wander, unmoved, past the various twinklings, crinklings and tintinnabulations that the merchants have mustered and strewn about their window displays and storefronts. I suddenly recognize the throat-closing symptoms a friend described having the first time she entered an American supermarket after a three-year Peace Corps stint in Kenya--paralysis caused by overabundance. There is just too much stuff. At the end of the Promenade looms the mall. Figures stream in and out of its winking, blinking doors like ants swarming over a fallen snow cone.

For a moment I think I hear the warning tones of Marley's ghost in my ear, and then I remember something. My step quickens, I dodge a set of matching Basset hounds and two roller-bladers, and there it is, sitting across from the jellybean stores and purveyors of footwear trends with the placid pride of a kindly, rosy-cheeked dowager--F.W. Woolworth & Co.

I push open the door and the varnishy sweet Woolworth's smell, a delicious tangle of Emeraude, crayons and 4-in-1 oil, rolls over me. Forget turkey basting, or gingerbread, or brand-new snow or even pine boughs, this is the smell of Christmas, or at least Christmas shopping.

My first Christmas shopping experience actually began with cookie dough. Cookie dough that wouldn't roll flat, that stuck to the cutters, that turned from unmanageable crumbs into glop. At some point post-glop, my mother, her voice high and trembly as a jumper on the 26th floor ledge, called out to my father and suggested that he put down his book for 2 1/2 minutes and get these kids out of the house. My little brother and I relinquished our fistfuls of glop only when Dad proposed that we, at 6 and 4, were now old enough to do our own Christmas shopping. So he bundled us into the car and took us to Woolworth's.

Just outside the store, he entrusted me with Jay and two $1 bills. I was to buy presents for my mother and if there was any money left over, something for him. When the little hand was on the 4 and the big hand was on the 12, I was to return myself and my brother, preferably undamaged, to the front door where my father would be standing, obeying my order "not to peek."

Certainly I had been to Woolworth's before; it was as necessary a stop on shopping excursions as the grocery store. Sometimes as a special treat my mother would lead us to the lunch counter, lift us up onto the turquoise swivel seats and let us order grilled cheese sandwiches and drink our milk with a straw. While this was enormously thrilling, it in no way prepared me for the magic of Woolworth's at Christmas on my own.

*

As Jay and I followed the squeaking planks of the scuffed wood floor, the store seemed to grow in majesty and grandeur, its wealth of merchandise shining and sparkling in neat rows and tidy bins, lining shelves that seemed to stretch to the ceiling.

Bravely, we ignored the racks and racks of candy bars and followed the Christmas-wreathed signs that marked the gift displays. Perfumes and oil beads, talcum powder and soaps, spangly necklaces and jeweled pins, colorful ties and snowy white handkerchiefs, some even with navy blue initials sewn right on them. We ventured as far as the wallets and clocks and slippers and umbrellas, but these were big presents, unthinkable--imagine having enough money to buy a whole clock!

We turned back to the aisles with the smaller bins, where the prices had two numbers on them, not three. My brother couldn't see some of the pretty things in the back so I wrapped my arms around his tummy and hoisted him high enough so that his Buster Browns scrabbled against my knees and neither one of us could breathe much. He laughed out loud though because his shirt rode up and that always tickled.

We picked out a lovely purple comb and a pin in the shape of a Christmas tree with genuine imitation jewel ornaments for my mother and handkerchiefs for my father. We were so proud of our own good taste that on Christmas morning, we insisted that our parents open their presents first, even before we attacked our stockings.

I have always wondered where mothers learn that preemptive "Isn't this lovely!" smile that makes a child feel proud of whatever is being admired--a finger-painting, a dead praying mantis, a purple comb from Woolworth's. My mother's shone out that Christmas day and continued to shine throughout the Woolworth years.

Like her mother before her and the mothers of everyone I grew up with, she smiled through quart bottles of green perfume, industrial-strength lilac dusting powder, gold plastic evening clutches, fake pearl neckties, bottles of fire-engine red nail polish with matching lipstick, and one year, an avocado-green clock that glowed in the dark.

*

As I stand in this Woolworth's, smiling to myself at the neatly arranged boxes with their ubiquitous Christmas tree pins, I notice that many things are different--avocado green, for one thing, is mercifully no longer available for timepieces or any other appliance. There are a lot more gadgets now, I can't seem to find those really big bottles of Emeraude, the floors are tiled and very few prices have only two numbers in them.

But the handkerchiefs are here, and the spangly necklaces and the talcum powder and the wallets and the umbrellas, all neatly arranged in rows and bins that my now six-foot-tall baby brother will be able to see quite clearly when I bring him here.

Today, I buy my mother a beautiful pin and my father a box of handkerchiefs. And with these tucked like talismans in my pocket, I head out to tackle the Promenade. Woolworth's is strong magic--but I'm still not quite ready for the mall.

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