Today there are 3,773 Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in the United States. The one in my hometown is store #4. I grew up in Wal-Mart country, not far from Sam Walton's very first dime store. There was a "Wal-Mart Discount City" in my town before I was even born (complete with the "old West" style logo they once used). Aside from Ben Franklin who mostly carried "sundries" like hula hoops and Frisbees, Wal-Mart was practically the only local supplier of toys. Therefore Wal-Mart's toy inventory was my expertise.
However, on weekends my family often trekked to the nearest shopping mall which was an hour away. This mall was home to a Woolworths store. I initially dismissed the place. Why visit Woolworths when I had constant access to Wal-Mart? I'd rather use my valuable mall time in "The Land of Oz" arcade, or "Coach House Gifts" the novelty shop, or "Toy Fair" the precursor to chains like Kay Bee Toys.
It was parental orders to retrieve my sister from the Woolworth candy aisle that first prompted me to enter their showroom. I blazed in with a purpose, but an onslaught of unfamiliar products transformed me into a wide eyed meanderer. It was like an alternate reality. They had candy..but not the brands I knew. They had toys, but theirs were...different, older even. Plus they had a snack shop that permeated the store with the aroma of popcorn. And a section of booths near the entrance that provided the perfect spot to people-watch while sipping a Slushie from a plastic Marvel Super Heroes cup. All this and the fact that many of their products sat on the shelves for several years made for a thrilling shopping experience. Needless to say, it remained a mall favorite until it closed its doors in the late 1980s.
So allow me to present a sample of Woolworths' fare that I so vividly remember...
G.I. Joe was nowhere in sight. But what's this brave soldier? Sgt. Rock!?! I recognized the name from the Comic Book rack at the ICEE store! I'd seen Star Trek the Motion Picture right there in the mall cinema, but I didn't know they made action figures. (What do you know, they looked remarkably like my Star Wars figures.) Unfortunately Woolworths' selection was limited to pegs and pegs of Llia, better known as "the bald woman." And there was another surplus of bald headed figures..Lex Luthor. He was the only remaining "Pocket Super Hero." Woolworth shoppers just didn't go for the bald toys!
Eventually I found my way to the record department. It was brimming with the K-Tel catalog, and other releases that were previously strictly "As Seen On TV." I'd always thought that those LPs were meant to be kept out of the reach of the common "brick and mortar" shopper.. I figured that only citizens with access to "Check or Money Order" had the right to such delights. But there they stood before me and suddenly I could see them with my eyes and my hands. I scored Power Records' Fantastic Four story on my first visit. Luck was not with me on subsequent trips as I had to settle for the Monster Mash 7-inch single as opposed to the loaded 12-inch album. And still later I was bluntly denied when I asked for the coveted Funky Favorites from Ronco, an album of novelty hits whose TV commercials had targeted me several times each afternoon. I think my parents were hung up on the unsettling use of the term "funky."
The Real Movie Giant Pin-Ups from Topps were a revelation. These were exact scale replicas of the very marquee posters that were in movie theaters. Oh, how I longed for The Empire Strikes Back, yet I wound up with Smokey and the Bandit, Rocky, Superman the Movie, Grease, Airplane and Blue Lagoon (not counting doubles). In an act of good faith, I voluntarily (and publicly) trashed my Blue Lagoon poster in an attempt to impress my parents with my piousness (and to ensure future posters.)
Even the Woolworths inventory of Wacky Packages was refreshingly different. They didn't stock the standard "wax packs," instead they offered large sheets of stickers in cellophane "Party Packs." Since the stickers were now plainly visible these bundles practically eliminated unwanted doubles. The money you saved on duplicates could buy an official sticker album. I never parted with mine.
I also managed to hold onto my ultimate Woolworths prize... a Wacky Packages knock-off (how very ironic) in the form of a "life-size" metal bank that goofed on Fab laundry detergent. I loved Wacky Packs. I loved monsters. This had both. To me the Blood Flavored Lab bank embodies everything that Woolworths was... familiar yet unexpected, and altogether wonderful.
For more information on the history of Woolworths check out the official Woolworth's Museum.
UPDATE: I found this old Woolworths commercial that mentions Funky Favorites...