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Back At The Old Five & Dime...

North Conway 5 & 10

There was a time in America when a 5 & 10 variety store was the shopping destination in virtually every city and town. Woolworth's, Kresge's, W.T. Grant, Ben Franklin Stores and thousands of independents. You went there to get socks and sponges, toys and candy, pots and pans and eyeglass repair kits. Often, you'd get the latest town news, too. The proprietors were often colorful people, businessmen and women working long hours six and seven days a week serving the needs of their communities.

My grandfather started Arrow Wholesale in the late 1920s, selling wholesale merchandise to 5 & 10s all over New England. My father joined the business seemingly in grade school; his passion for it was the driving force in his life. My brother worked at Arrow for 30 years, and I worked there after school, on breaks and then after college full-time until I was 28. My sister grew up on the road with our father, getting to know the stores and customers, the small towns and struggles of these independent stores fighting to stay open in the giant shadow of Walmart, Target and Amazon. This world is in our blood.

I was in North Conway, NH on Friday afternoon and paid a visit to the iconic North Conway 5 & 10 Store. Amidst the gentrification and faux-quaint development that has taken root throughout the Mt. Washington Valley catering to the affluent crowds of skiers and hikers, this emblem of a bygone era in America remains open, as much a curiosity as a destination for commerce. Homemade fudge and local souvenirs are the big sellers now; wooden sock darners and Tintex fabric dye are no longer in high demand.

Walking in, the smell of the old five and dime, the smell I can recall from my childhood visiting West Concord 5 & 10 and Goldstein 5 & 10 in Taunton; Irving's Toy & Gift in Brookline and the Ben Franklin Store on Trapelo Road in Belmont and a hundred other places, filled my nostrils. The smell of old wood and cardboard, penny candy and fudge, of a palpable was overpowering for a moment.

Introducing myself to the staff on duty, I said that my father and grandfather owned a wholesale business in Worcester, Massachusetts that used to supply merchandise to the store. Before I could finish, a woman named Terri, who's been working there for nearly 25 years, popped out from behind the counter and said "Arrow Wholesale. We miss them. We can't find most of the goods we used to get from Arrow."

We spoke for a few minutes more; I told her my dad had passed away last year and Arrow is but a memory. She showed me a laminated copy of an invoice from 1945 hanging on the wall; an order with my grandfather's handwritten pricing on it. It's an innocuous gesture, a nod to the history of the store (which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places), yet it's a link to my family's history, to a bygone era of Americana; it's a thread through time. This is not a lament for this bygone era either; entropy is a part of life and just as the big box stores supplanted the five and dime, Amazon and online retailers are knocking off department stores now. Trying to stop it would be as effective as trying to stop a sunset.

It's been only a few days into this journey, and I've felt my father's presence with me along every mile. I can hear him asking me which route I took; he knew every back road and small town in New England. I can hear him asking about the store, if they needed goods and did I take an order. He'd deliver it next week, see a few other customers and do some business and then stop for dinner at this place he knows where the prime rib is $14.95 on Wednesdays and the coffee is terrible but they give free refills so...

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