Five and Dime

I’ve been reading Lee Smith’s memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life. I’d  never heard of Lee Smith nor read any of her novels, but I’m always interested in writer’s lives, how they grew up, what contributed to their formation as writers. In her book, she remembers her father’s dimestore, and relates several stories pertaining to it during childhood.

This has led me back to the dimestore in my own town when I was a kid. Back then my mother called it “the five and dime”, but its official name was McClellan’s. Before the rise of the dollar store, this was where you could find all manner of items at fairly inexpensive prices. Junk, I’d call it now, but when I was a kid, I loved to peruse its aisles and gaze at the wonderful things the store had to offer: the usual mugs and tupperware, kitchenware, fake flowers, rugs and curtains, toiletries and bath items, and endless knick-knacks. I especially loved the Oriental folding fans in the black metal cases, and the brightly colored ceramic masks with ribbons.

It also had a cosmetics aisle, and when I was 13 years old I shoplifted quite a bit of it.


I got the idea from my friend who lived next door. At 12 or 13, we were old enough to walk alone up the hill under the train tracks to Main Street, and McClellan’s was one of our favorite places to go. We had just started wearing make-up:a little blush, a little powder, blue eye shadow and mascara, but it would be another year before I got the job at Burger Chef to make my own money. We bemoaned the price of make-up, even here at the five and dime, and how long it would take to save up our paltry allowance for one tube of mascara.

One day at the store my friend put her finger to her lips and looked around, then slipped a package of something-lipstick, powder, a brow pencil?-inside her coat. We casually looked at something else in another aisle, and then walked out the door. Outside, down the street, we giggled as she pulled the booty out of her coat.

“Why shouldn’t I have it?” she asked, and I could only agree. It was so easy.

The next time I was in the store, I tried it myself. I don’t remember what it was, blush or eyeliner perhaps, but when no one was in the aisle, I hid it inside my own coat, heart hammering, and then strolled out the door without a hitch.

It was the beginning of an escapade that netted me a whole bag of cosmetics-not just the make-up, but brushes and combs and eyelash curlers, and even a cute little cosmetic bag to put it all in. When I showed my friend my cache, her eyes widened. “What have I done?” she said and laughed.

When I realized that even she was shocked, I got an inkling that this was probably wrong and not a good idea to continue. What if I got caught? What shame and humiliation! I was a Good Girl. I realized I couldn’t bear the disappointment in my mother’s eyes if she knew. So I stopped.( Besides, I had a good supply that would last me for awhile anyway).

This was my only foray into criminal activity and I’m grateful that I didn’t have to go through the shame of getting caught in order to see the error of my ways.

That five and dime has been gone for many years; so is that naive 13 year old who felt entitled to take what didn’t belong to her. There’s a mattress store now where I once committed my thievery, but out back on the rear wall you can see the old McClellan’s sign that’s still there, covered in ivy.  My memories are tangled up in those vines, waiting for me to unravel them.



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