Where I grew up in Helston, the Woolworth store sat at the bottom of Coinagehall Street near the Grylls Monument and was managed by the father of a schoolfriend, Mr Davies. Being a hill, it was a good old walk down Coinagehall Street to get to the store and an even harder walk back so the only people who went there were those who really wanted to shop at Woolworth. From my memory that divided into two camps; young mums and pensioners. Woolies was where you went for Ladybird clothes, those slightly old-fashioned but cheap wooly jumpers, trousers, white vests and sensible shoes that we were all required to wear until some genius invented trainers. Even though they were unrelated, there was curious synergy between Ladybird clothes and the Ladybird books that also sold in the store. The books were constantly in print but the illustrations never got updated. Consequently, all of the children in them looked as if they were extras in a Famous Five movie. As indeed did we until we hit puberty and migrated to denim.There always seemed to be predatory packs of pensioners in the store buying cooking utensils. I used to wonder what they did with them all. I don’t know about you, but I have used the same spatulas, ladles, nutcrackers and serving spoons for years. They need replacing as often as double-glazing but these little old ladies would be in there every week buying them. My theory was that they got home, put them 'somewhere safe' and then forgot where that was. I assume that during post-mortem house clearances, most pensioners’ houses in Cornwall served to fill several skips with slotted spoons and fish slices.
But, for me as a kid, Woolies was about two things: music and sweets. I can remember when the Helston store opened its music section and how it upset my good mate Dylan at the ETS Shop further up the street because they undercut his prices. However, I still shopped with Dylan because he kept back all of the best picture discs, coloured vinyls, posters, premiums and giveaways for me. Yes, I had the picture disc of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and the yellow vinyl edition of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and a host of other collectibles. I will always thank Dylan for that as I sold them all on e-bay a couple of years ago and used the money to buy my dream guitar. Cheers matey! Then there was the famous pick and mix or, as they liked to call it Pic’n’mix. I loved the pick and mix. Flying saucers, foam bananas, sherbet dips, lollipops, chewy prawns - who would think to fashion a sweet after a marine crustacean? Genius! - sweet cigarettes, Cornish clotted cream fudge, those weird white chocolate buttons covered with tiny coloured balls, liquorice bootlaces … it was an absolute joy to spend my hard-earned paper round money on these artery-encrusting treats. And you felt like you got your money’s worth too; a big bulging sack of sugary goodness for the same price as a piddling Mars Bar or Caramac.
I should also mention that the Helston Woolies was the scene of one of my many juvenile pranks as a teenager. Armed only with a microphone (the cable of which, if anyone had looked, went pointlessly into my trouser pocket), I wandered around the premises interviewing shoppers about what they thought of the store, telling them that they were being filmed by the in-store cameras and would feature on the evening news. The interview ended with me persuading them to do a little jig to camera in the centre of the shop. How my friends hooted with laughter.
And then there was Christmas. Woolies was always the first store in the street to put the decorations out and the TV adverts were always the most lavish and spectacular. They starred all kinds of B-list celebs from Rolf Harris (remember the song? ‘Christmas Caaaaaards, Christmas Caaaaaaards …’) to The Goodies (with a Steeleye Span/Abba-esque soundtrack), various BBC Radio 1 DJs, the casts of various sitcoms and game show hosts. And who could forget that shameful – but undoubtedly expensive - 1995 rip-off of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas? Christmas with Woolies was always a big event.
So it’s all very sad. Some people have even shed a tear or two. But it’s progress, I’m afraid and, like recent casualties MFI, Adams, Zaavi and Roseby’s, F W Woolworth couldn’t compete with the bigger, more financially-bolstered megacorporations. For me, the demise of Woolies feels like the last nail in the coffin of what we used to call ‘the local shops’. And guess what? Woolworth's probably would have sold the hammer and nails.