Dear Call Box: I can’t remember the name of the dime store that used to be where Farah & Farah law firm is now. Can you tell me, as well as some of the store’s history.

 

G.S., Southside

Dear G.S.: During the heyday of downtown shopping, Kress Five and Dime reigned as a classic Main Street America icon. It had that landmark location at Main and Adams streets, and its brick and ornamental stone architecture drew the eye.

Jacksonville’s first Kress store opened at 15 E. Bay St. in either 1900 or 1906 (accounts differ) and moved in 1912 to what has since become Farah & Farah. It claimed that this was the largest of all of the Kress stores and probably the third largest 5- to 25-cent store in the world at that time, according to historian Wayne Wood in his book, “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future.”

The store featured an internal telephone system, a lunch counter, an information booth and a tea room on the mezzanine, Wood wrote.

The store had large customized counters set crosswise down long hardwood floors. There were high ceilings, large display windows and well-positioned hanging lamps that created a bright atmosphere for an endless array of inexpensive items and lent an air of spaciousness.

Children on a limited allowance could buy presents for everyone on their Christmas list for just a few bucks.

Think little blue bottles of Evening In Paris perfume for a quarter, plastic flowers, hair nets, toys, fly swatters, white gloves, handkerchiefs, Tangee lipstick, belts, suspenders, salt shakers with moisture-proof tops, bathtub stoppers with a chain on them and thousands of knick-knacks.

Connie Smart worked in the notions department at Kress on Saturdays and during the summer for a couple of years in the mid-1940s. In those pre-computer days, she often had to stay late to count inventory. And there were lots of little items to track.

“I remember a whole lot of counters all over the place and wide aisles between the counters,” Smart said Thursday, adding that most of the inventory was on the first floor of the three-story building. Stock was stored on the third floor, she said.

Her most vivid memory was the pleasing aroma of popcorn that could be heard and smelled several aisles away. As the oldest of eight children, she didn’t do much shopping but worked to earn money for school supplies.

It was indeed popcorn that lured some shoppers into the store. One couple told Call Box they would ride the bus downtown on Saturdays, stop at Kress and buy a tubular bag that must have been at least 2 feet tall and 6 to 8 inches in diameter for 10 cents and then go to the movies.

From 1986 to at least 1992, former female employees organized annual reunions. Former Times-Union columnist Bob Phelps wrote about several of them, including a doughnut caper incident.

Every morning a big batch of fresh-glazed doughnuts was baked to entice customers and even employees. One morning a hungry young employee, who had skipped breakfast that day and couldn’t resist the aroma, grabbed one and knelt behind her counter to scarf it down. In mid-chew, she saw a tapping foot and gazed into the stern glare of the woman who did the hiring and firing and had a reputation for quick discipline.

“I’m sorry, but I was just so hungry,” she told her boss, encouraging her to have one as well. To her surprise, her boss didn’t fire her but said, “Hurry up, eat your doughnut, stand up and get to work.”

One of the store’s beloved cleaning women, known for her sweet voice, always sang spirituals as she worked along the aisles. Part of the reunion program was to tell anecdotes about the store. At one reunion she walked slowly to the front and didn’t say anything. She just started singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. …” Soon, the audience was singing with her, and there were more than a few tears, the Times-Union reported.

The store, part of a nationwide chain established by Samuel Henry Kress in 1896 in Pennsylvania, closed in 1977. The Kress stores were known for their architecture and were not related to the S.S. Kresge-Kmart chain.

The manager and employees told the Times-Union the downtown store closed because of lack of business and expiration of its lease. Business had declined steadily since the closing of nearby Grant’s and Walgreens and the upsurge in popularity of shopping centers.

Dependable Insurance Co. occupied the space for a time, and it sat vacant for a few years. It had been renovated for professional offices, sold a couple of times and underwent a $1.6 million renovation in the mid-1990s.

“Like many other downtown commercial structures, the first-floor facade of this building was severely altered in later years,” Wood said in his book.

Although the original storefront could not be replaced, Wood said, the brick and ornamental stone of the upper story were matched to create an entirely new but harmonious first-story facade.

At least it didn’t face the fate of many downtown buildings. It wasn’t torn down for a parking garage.

If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128