Somebody told me recently that Woolworth's downtown had the last lunch counter in the country.
I didn’t know if it was true, but it was interesting and if it wasn’t true, it sounded true enough.
The word “last” gets your attention. The last doughnut, the last gunfighter, the last navy blue sweater vest. “Last” can be a motivator, an accelerator and an instigator. Last can get you out of the chair, through the door and into the car.
“Last” can make you go, see, buy and eat — and we did all four last Thursday because after the word “last” comes phrases like “not one,” “no more,” and “you should have been here yesterday.”
The building on 19th still displays Woolworth's signage, but it’s not a Woolworth's because the old five-and-dimer went out of business in the 1980s in the U.S. Now the building is home to the Five & Dime Antique Mall and, for the last eight years, a lunch counter owned by Jeremy and Joseph Trammell.
If you haven’t been to an antique store in a while — and I hadn’t because I’d be strapping pre-World War I tables on my back to take home — it’s fun. Walking through the store to the lunch counter I saw about a million things I had to have including a pair of porcelain egg poachers, a trestle pine table with an extension leaf and the gray metal Brannock device, the instrument for measuring a person’s shoe size invented by Charles F. Brannock.
Remember those? Every shoe store worth its calfskin uppers had them and memorable shoe buying experiences begin with measuring your feet, which made a shoe buyer feel valued because someone finally cared about his feet.
As I sat and waited for my cheeseburger, baked beans and a chocolate chip milkshake, I thought about the Brannock because it was sitting alluringly on a shelf five feet away from me whispering, “Buy me.”
An antique store and a Woolworth’s lunch counter will catapult you into a quainter time. The restaurant had old-fashioned signs on the wall that read “Always fresh brewed coffee” “15 cent hot dogs,” “25 cent hamburgers,” and “Made in America.” Seating consisted of 22 red stools at the counter and 11 tables scattered over the classic black-and-white tiled floor. The servers wore white shirts, bowties and black pants.
The Woolworth’s Diner looked like it was lifted from the set for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All it needed was Jimmy Stewart striding in, tipping his hat to Donna Reed and saying, “You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
The lunch counter was a quaint throwback but this was 2017 and the rosy glow had disappeared from the landscape like the sunshine over Bedford Falls. How many people would even remember Woolworth’s (which at one time had almost 600 stores) with its “mahogany counters, glass-fronted showcases and wooden floors polished to a lustrous shine?”
How many would remember the pleasure of eating at a lunch counter, with its bright and friendly atmosphere and piping hot food? Eating at Woolworth’s was an occasion, a chance to to meet a beau, a friend on her birthday or treat a granddaughter to lunch in order to hone her going-out-in-public manners.
That was then. This is now. Then is not now.
I wished the Trammell brothers luck, applauding their idea, but as I closed my eyes and floated down the way-life-used-to-be lane, I thought to myself, “Good luck.”
When I opened my eyes, there were 15 people in line waiting to give their orders to the server at the cash register and then take their seats at the counter or tables.
There were servicemen, jurors from the courts a few blocks away and people on lunch breaks.
In the hour we were there, almost 50 people came through and at one point, every table and stool was filled.
I could see why. The cheeseburger was good, the fries were crisp and golden and the baked beans hot.
Quaint? That place is cooking. Cooking, serving and doing business. Maybe the last will last. Right now, the fit is fine.