Shiny red firetrucks. Sleek derby race cars. Flower-power hippie vans. Piled in glass-paneled bins on the toy counter, the metal, four-wheeled trinkets enchant little Caiden Williams, who eagerly touches one after another. The 2-year-old wraps a pudgy hand around a toy school bus and rolls it across the other playthings.
“This is our new tradition,” beams his grandmother, Debbie Ryman. “Whenever he comes to see me, I’m taking him to Dooley’s.”
Visiting an authentic dime store at least once should, arguably, be a part of every child’s life. One of the few such places left in Texas is Dooley’s 5-10 & 25¢ store in downtown Fredericksburg. Since 1923, folks of all ages have browsed the aisles for embroidery thread, hairnets, cast-iron skillets, lacy doilies, cat-eye marbles, cotton undies, stationery, pants stretchers and countless other sundries. No doubt, the old-fashioned merchandise, coupled with scuffed hardwood floors and pressed tin ceilings, enhances the sense of nostalgia at Dooley’s.
In the 19th century, before dime stores came along, people bought necessities at dry-goods stores. Behind counters, clerks fetched merchandise and priced it, usually at whim. Then, starting in 1879, Frank W. Woolworth introduced a new way to shop when he marketed nickel-priced items on self-serve tables at his Great Five-Cent Stores in New York and Pennsylvania.
For decades, Americans frequented Woolworth’s and other “variety” stores. In the 1960s and ’70s, large discount stores and suburban malls gradually replaced many dime stores. By the late ’90s, big-box stores, touting huge selections and fast checkouts, had shuttered most of the last remaining survivors.
Except for a few, like Dooley’s.
“We’re an antique store,” says owner Tim Dooley, 57, seated in a back storeroom. Then he cracks a grin. “We don’t sell them; we’re an antique! We’ve survived because we own our own building and don’t have to pay rent. Plus, we’re hardheaded!”
He and his father, John Dooley, 84, who’s sitting nearby, grew up in the family business, housed in a circa 1914 building on Main Street.
“At the end of World War I, my father, Charles, got drafted, but he didn’t serve because he could type,” John Dooley says. “So he ended up at an office in San Antonio. Later, he sold real estate. Then a family friend, who owned a chain of Texas dime stores, offered to finance my father in the variety business.”
After settling on Fredericksburg, Charles Dooley opened his new five-and-dime in 1923. Two years later, the business moved a few doors down into a two-story building vacated by a hardware store. In 1964, the Dooleys knocked out a common wall and expanded into the adjoining building.
Staying afloat ever since, especially as an independent, hasn’t been easy. “Walmart has put the middleman out of business. When I can’t find a supplier who can sell me one or two items at a time, then I’ll be in trouble,” Tim Dooley says.
In recent years, Dooley’s has relied on a distribution company in Iowa to stock shelves. Among the store’s best sellers are cast aluminum toys, such as tractors and implements. There’s more: Corks in every size for saltshakers and wine bottles. Novelty hats for costumes and make-believe. Laundry sprinkle gadgets, used for steam ironing, and spatterware, a line of enamel mugs and plates.
Vintage perfume, too. “Blue Waltz was popular back in the ’30s and sold for 39 cents,” Tim Dooley says, holding up a tiny, heart-shaped flask with a blue rosebud cap. In 2003, Country Living magazine listed Dooley’s as one of three known places nationwide that still carried the perfume.
“After that mention, I bet I shipped 2,000 bottles, coast to coast,” he says. “And I’m still shipping it. But not for 39 cents!”
Speaking of money, Dooley’s only accepts cash and checks. Absolutely no credit or debit cards, please. “We don’t scan our stuff at the register, either,” Tim Dooley says. “Because if we did, we wouldn’t be who we are. Our inventory control are the ladies on the sales floor who check stock and make orders.”
They also dust and straighten their assigned areas several times a day. And answer questions. “What’s this?” asks a customer, holding up something that resembles an unpainted Mexican maraca. Emma Jean Ransleben—who at 68 has worked at Dooley’s for 25 years—pauses from folding ladies’ scarves and nods. “That’s a sock darner,” she replies. “Some people still mend their own socks.”
Betty Rabke watches over the counter of crazy hats and pegboard wall of picture frames. “I’ve worked here since I graduated from high school in 1951,” says the 77-year-old native. “What’s changed? Oh, the prices! And at Easter, we used to sell little colored chicks—blues, pinks, yellows. But not any more.”
No matter. Locals and tourists alike still flock to Dooley’s, especially Saturdays, when as many as 750 come and go (the store is closed Sundays). “People who went to five-and-dimes as a child bring their children and grandchildren in to see what they grew up with,” Tim Dooley says.
“Other than going from an old adding machine to computers,” says 79-year-old Rose Fiedler, who’s kept the books since 1950, “Dooley’s has stayed pretty much the same.”
Meanwhile, across the store, little Caiden is still happily playing at the toy counter. “A while ago, his mother and I had to figure out how to get him to come into the store,” his grandmother muses. “Now we’ve got to figure out how to get him out.”
Sheryl Smith-Rodgers of Blanco is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.