St. Louis-area five-and-dime closes, ending an era

Friday, September 14, 2012 | 12:03 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The era of five-and-dime variety stores came and went long ago as the age of superstores took over.

But a handful of them have managed to hang on. One of them has been the Ben Franklin store in Webster Groves where students from area schools often stop in to buy Bazooka Bubble Gum and Swedish fish by the pound and where their parents come in search of everything from fabric and yarn to snowman-themed Christmas decorations.

But now that store is going the way of Woolworth's and closing up shop. Owner Gary Hampel, 53, chalked it up to the usual culprits — a landlord asking for higher rent, the poor economy and competition.

"Big boxes hit the craft industry — between Hobby Lobbies and Michaels," he said. "And we sell the same goods that Walmart, Walgreens, and everyone else has."

The store began a going-out-of-business sale Wednesday and plans to have its last day sometime next month.

After it closes, there will only be one remaining Ben Franklin franchised store in the region — one in Eureka, run by Hampel's brother. Hampel closed another store in south St. Louis County last year.

"It's disappointing," said Karen Lickenbrock, who lives near the Webster Groves store and has been shopping there for about 20 years. "I liked having it. It's a throwback to another time."

Her children often ride their bikes down there for candy. And she would come in to buy last-minute school supplies such as poster board to get a picture framed.

Decades ago, there were probably 50 to 60 Ben Franklin stores around St. Louis, Hampel said.

His father, Walter, opened his first Ben Franklin store in 1955 on South Broadway near Chippewa in St. Louis. That store had just a few aisles and sold everything from window shades to housewares to fish and birds.

The Hampel family opened the Webster Groves store in 1982 when Gary Hampel was graduating from college. They began expanding around that time and at their peak, they ran about a dozen Ben Franklin stores across the Midwest.

"We had decades of solid sales and profit," he said.

But in 1996, the corporate franchisor of Ben Franklin filed for bankruptcy. At that time, there were about 860 locally owned Ben Franklin stores in 47 states. After that, franchisees such as the Hampels began stocking their stores mostly through their own relationships with vendors.

The following year, Woolworth Corp., which had once been one of America's dominant retailers, announced it was closing its remaining five-and-dime stores that had been a fixture on Main Streets for so many years. The company had pulled out of St. Louis in 1993, when it closed its last six stores in this region.

Ironically, Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, once owned about 15 Ben Franklin stores in Missouri and Arkansas. When the company's management turned down his suggestion to open discount stores in small towns, he ended up opening the concept on his own — the first Walmart store — in 1962.

Walmart, of course, went on to become the largest retailer in the world and one of the many reasons — along with other superstores and drug stores — often cited for the demise of five-and-dime stores.

According to the Ben Franklin website, there are still about 160 of those stores left across the country.

In recent years, Hampel said his Webster Groves location has become more of a craft store with fabrics, sewing materials, and a frame shop. But it still has remnants of its variety store past with stationary, greeting cards, toys and puzzles in the mix.

He technically stopped selling "penny candy" about five years ago.

"It got so cumbersome counting it all up at the register, so we went to the pound method," he said. "But it still basically amounts to a penny a piece."

The store has had a good run, he added.

So how was he able to hang on to it for so many years?

"Don't know," he said. "Evidently I can't. But we're one of the last."

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