Fifty years ago today, the doors of Woolco, the first Columbus department store, opened for customers.
It was, as former employees put it, a “madhouse.”
Miriam Hutchison and Elwanna Johnson stood at cash registers checking customers out on what Hutchison called a “big monstrosity of a cash register.” The register had a row of keys on each side. Cashiers like Hutchison and Johnson had to punch in both the codes for the department the items came from and the item’s price before tearing off the price stub and dropping it in one of four slots in the register.
The lines to check out appeared unending.
Despite the crowds, customers were glad that Woolco had opened, according to Ann Tate, who worked at the customer service desk.
“At the time, Columbus didn’t have a big store, one that had a lot of everything,” she said.
For the next 17 years, shoppers from Columbus and the surrounding areas would descend on Woolco. They came as far away as Ethelsville and Vernon in Alabama, said Virginia Logan, who worked in Ladies’ Wear and later as a merchandiser.
There was simply nothing else that big or that convenient in the area.
“They were happy because the prices were good and they could get just about anything they wanted,” Tate said.
‘Felt like home to us’
Working at Woolco was like working at a fair or a circus, said Bennie Savage, who managed the camera department.
When customers or employees entered, they were met with the smell of popcorn and donuts. Music played throughout the store. Some customers would stay all day, chatting with employees or sipping coffee at the Red Grille Restaurant.
“Folks don’t (do) that nowadays,” Savage said. “They go into a store and get what they want and get out. But there, they’d come up and they’d talk to you and you could talk to them. They just felt like home to us.”
Woolco was a master at bringing people into the store, Savage said. Shortly after the store’s opening, Woolco held a ping pong drop. Employees roped off the store parking lot and a helicopter flew over the lot and released thousands of ping pong balls. Each ping pong ball had a number on it which was matched to a gift Woolco was giving away.
“Of course the blades on the helicopter made those ping pong balls really go places because that wind, it would suck them up,” Savage said.
For a few years, Woolco also had a 22 cent sale on President’s Day, according to Hutchison. Products ranging from rifles to TV sets were 22 cents, Savage said. Shoppers camped out in front of the store the night before the sale.
“And they opened those doors up and the customers came through there like a herd of cows,” Savage said.
The 22 cent sale was hardly the only special.
Woolco gave away turkeys at Thanksgiving and took pictures of children with Santa Claus for free at Christmas. Once the employees hid a diamond in an ice cube, and customers were able to pick out a cube to see if they won the ring. Customers could win prizes if they accurately guessed how many pennies were in a gold fish bowl or how long it would take a large block of ice to melt if it were sitting outside the front door.
‘A happy-go-lucky place’
Former employees say the store was also a good place to work. It was easy for employees on the sales floor to move into management and office positions. Both Johnson and Hutchison started as cashiers. When the store closed in 1983, Johnson was working in advertising and Hutchison was working as an office manager.
There were contests and parties for the employees as well. They had Halloween parties where they dressed up and could win days off for their costumes.
It was one of the reasons they, like many customers, were shocked and upset to learn of the store’s closing.
Hutchison, Johnson and Logan said they had a feeling something was going on the day it was announced the store would close. Johnson and Logan used to eat lunch together in the Sonic Drive-In near the store. They remembered sitting in the car they had taken, talking about what may be happening.
Savage was on his way home from helping a store in Texas open. Walking through the airport terminal, he heard from the news that Woolco would close all its U.S. stores.
“I was in a daze,” he said.
In the years since, many of the employees have kept in touch. Hutchison said she knows of employees and customers both who wish the store had stayed open.
“It was just a happy go lucky place,” Tate said.