In my hometown, the discount store where my grandparents bought me Matchbox Cars was called Big D, and it always had the most wonderful smell. “Dirt,” my mother called it, wrinkling her nose. She was partially right, in that the sweetish aroma came from dusty products that never moved off the shelves. It’s long-gone now, a victim of the chain-ification of the world — although most of the Northeast chains that drove Big D and its ilk under are now out of business, too: Caldor, Rock Bottom, Jamesway.
Smell is the most evocative sense, and upon walking into the Five & Dime Antique Mall in downtown Bakersfield last weekend, I was struck by that unmistakable olfactory resonance. This Woolworth may function as a museum as much as a store; an effort to preserve something historic in Bakersfield and keep it safe from the centripetal force of exurban big-box retail that continues to erode downtown shopping districts. And in this thriving, two-floor vintage shop as big as a department store is a real Woolworth lunch counter.
There, you can order coffee for $1.55, a triple cheeseburger for $8.99, and a side of baked beans for $1.90. The burger was tasty and very much in the vein of a Double-Double, although the fries needed hot sauce. (It was Tabasco, which a cheerful teenage server obtained from the back.) I got a $4.99 peanut butter milkshake, too — the kind that comes with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry and doesn’t entirely fit into the glass, so they give you a second vessel with the remainder in it.
The burger and fries came in a basket with checkered red-and-white lining. The floor is checkered black-and-white like the conservatory in Clue, and the 74-foot counter can seat 36 people. There are vintage film posters, a curled “We Can Do It!” bicep print, and the kind of soft, mid-century ads encouraging you to try Coca-Cola and other things you were already going to order. A railing separates the dining area from the aisles of semi-organized knickknacks that fill the rest of the store.
After opening in 1950 as an air-conditioned wonder, Woolworth closed its Bakersfield location in early 1994. That December, it reopened as the Five & Dime Antique Mall, and while technically that means it isn’t quite as authentic as, say, those mysteriously still-extant Blockbuster Video locations in Alaska, it’s close enough.
And wow, there were some finds. It might be the least picked-over vintage store I’ve ever been in. I found an unnerving framed portrait of the Dionne quintuplets, five girls from Ontario in different colored party dresses, each not quite smiling and holding an identical doll ($65). There was a bone labeled “femur of a creature” ($15) and a decorative plate in the garish hues of an outdoor tablecloth that commemorates the state of Wyoming by making it look like a tropical paradise. I found Barbie and Ken Star Trek dolls, Huron potato sacks, Warhol-esque cans of Solox denatured alcohol, bingo cards from St. Catherine’s Church in Morgan Hill, and lots of vintage signs. A rotating rack contained pulp romances with titles like Bugles Blow No More and The Harlot Killer, and some joker had placed a copy of a 1960 biography of Richard Nixon among them. Looking for the men’s room? It’s a little hard to spot, but a nude mannequin bust with a floral necktie shows you where.
It’s glorious, and it isn’t just a time-capsule if you’re looking for old-school holiday ornaments or a Lil Debbie Snackopoly board game, either. The proprietors recently discovered a huge cache of Cold War rations from 1964 designed to keep shoppers alive for three months in the event that fallout from a Soviet nuclear attack on San Francisco drifted to Kern County. A reporter tried one of the 50-year-old crackers and proclaimed it more than edible.
Woolworth Diner, inside the Five & Dime Antique Mall, 1400 19th St., Bakersfield, 661-321-0061 (no website).