By the time you read this, it is quite possible that a dear and much loved friend will have passed away. Should that sad day come, we shall console ourselves, as always on these occasions, with the thought that the departed was well stricken in years and had led a full life. “It wasn’t unexpected,” we shall say, “he had been poorly for a very long time.”
Yes, my friends, Woolworths – “Woolies” to his friends – is at the time of writing on the verge of quietus, a peaceful release from the burdens and cares of this world. As the hearse passes we shall take off our baseball caps as a gesture of respect. Strong men will wipe away a tear as fond memories come flooding back and women will bite a lip and sob.
But there will be much merriment at the wake. We’ll pass around the pick ‘n’ mix, suck on a wine gum or two and play “hunt the item” among half-stacked dusty shelves. “He would have liked it this way,” we’ll say.
Once the obsequies are done and we return to recession-wracked normality, will Woolies be missed? Probably not. It had long outlived any usefulness it might once have had. In some ways its downfall was its very sturdiness. It remained steadfast and unchanging, like a rock in a fast-moving stream, an implacability that might have been admirable had not the onrushing waters been alive with new ideas that passed it by.
But it was the very fact that it remained for so long true to its origins as a five-and-dime store piled high with cheap bric-a-brac that won it so many friends, not so much among world-weary adults but their wide-eyed offspring. For any child growing up in the Forties and Fifties, Woolworths was a wonderland. Its wooden-lined display counters at chin-height were laden with glittering, amazing and in some cases mysterious articles. Everything a household could wish for and much more besides was to be found as one wandered spellbound through its maze of aisles. From balls of string to chewing gum, from light bulbs to spring bulbs, from razor blades to horror comics, it was a cornucopia of consumption.
Above all, though, it was a kleptomaniac’s paradise and remained so to the very end. One of the most remarkable statistics to emerge as the accountants and City analysts pored over the books of the moribund retailer was that last year alone, when Woolies made a profit of £3.4m, the value of goods nicked by shoplifters was ten times that amount at £36.9m.
When Woolworth’s is finally laid to rest we shall be burying not any old store but a corporate Fagin whose like we shall never see again. We can never know how many thieves learned their trade thanks to the generosity of Woolies, but the figure must run into many thousands. Your correspondent would be lying if he were to deny that he, too, at a tender age succumbed to the temptation of seeing so many pocketable items within arm’s reach of a counter staffed by a shopgirl distracted by the sheen on her nails.
For me, however, it was a one-off. For others, it was a life-forming experience, the foundations on which careers were built. Relieving Woolies of part of its stock was, for them, an important lesson in capitalist economics. It taught that risk carries rewards; that at the margin there is waste that can be written off (in retailing it has its own euphemism – “shrinkage”); that enterprise involves daring; and that there are winners and losers.
Having mastered these principles and sneaked from the store with a short-trouser pocket bulging with marbles – a valuable currency in the playground barter – liberated from the toy counter, tomorrow’s entrepreneur took the first small step on the road to success.
How many estate agents, used car salesmen, financial advisers and investment bankers, who today recline in swivel-seated leather luxury in offices clad with satinwood and suck expansively on the best Havana can offer, owe their riches to the lessons that Woolworths taught gratis? For today’s robber serf is tomorrow’s robber baron.
To parody the poet, in a future world without Woolies there may lie buried some mute inglorious Carnegie, Rockefeller, or J Pierpoint Morgan, a potential giant of commerce or finance whose flower withered and died young because there was no inviting Woolworths counter from which to filch.
True, the authorities have done their best to revive the spirit of enterprise – often shoplifting today carries no more than a fixed-penalty notice – but in losing Woolies we lose an academy.