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John Eggers: Reminiscing about shopping in the 1950s

Nothing could have been finer than a visit to a Ben Franklin store in the 1950’s.  About this time of year the stores would get in their annual shipment of pea or bean shooters and every kid in town would stop by and for 10 cents you could buy a shooter and a bag of beans.

The next day in school it was like being on the beach at Iwo Jima. You had beans flying at you from all directions. Just for the fun of it, I always thought this would have been a good time for the cooks to serve bean or pea soup for lunch. I guess no one appreciated the irony because they never did it.

By the second day most of the shooters had been confiscated except from the smart kids who hid them just waiting for the second day of the pea-shooting season. On the way home from school it was open season on anyone who didn’t have one. As far as I can remember, no one ever got his or her eye shot out.

I learned that it was as much fun being the target as it was being the shooter. When you were the target of a bean shot at you by a potential girlfriend, you felt like maybe, just maybe she was interested. Bean shooters made us feel like we were all equal. I will always be thankful for the Ben Franklin stores for being the first to promote equal rights.

There were about 2,700 Ben Franklin stores at their peak in cities of all sizes. The franchise stores started in 1927 and I suppose it was about that time they realized that selling pea shooters was a good idea. They practiced the law of supply and demand.  It was just at a certain time of the year the stores would stock them. The owners realized that the more kids missed them, the more they would want them, which meant more sales. Today you can buy anything anytime, what fun is that?

The stores were named after Benjamin Franklin, who is noted for saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” In the spirit of its name, you could get a lot for your nickel or dime, hence the nickname “dime store.” By the way, Ben Franklin died in April at the age of 84 in 1790.

Ben Franklin stores were especially popular with kids because for a dime you could get a pocket full of penny candy like candy buttons that came on rolls of paper, nectar in wax bottles, Bazooka bubble gum, Bit-O-Honey pieces, Turkish Taffy and lots more. In the 1950’s kids stopped to pick up that penny on the sidewalk because it meant they could visit the dime store. Ben Franklin taught us to save our pennies.

Halloween was another bonanza for Ben Franklin stores and Halloween wouldn’t have been much fun with them. For about 19 cents you could buy a Lone Ranger type mask or if you robbed your piggy bank, you could spend 29 cents for a King Kong, witch or clown mask.

What were especially popular at this time were the wax lips and teeth and whistles, which came unwrapped. I know, that’s hard to believe. They were about 5 cents each. Once you finished using them, you ate them. What a novel idea.

They must have been made with corn syrup because there was sweetness to them. Anyway, seeing someone with big white buckteeth or huge red lips made you smile. I thank the Ben Franklin store for helping me release some of my inhibitions. You became a different person when you wore big red lips and blew a wax whistle.

Old Sam Walton knew a good thing when he saw it. He made his start in retailing as an operator of a Ben Franklin store and at one time he owned 15 in Missouri and Arkansas. He made an offer to the company to turn the stores into discount stores. The company didn’t like the idea so Sam Walton ended up opening up his own discount store, which evolved into the Wal-Mart store we know today. Imagine all of those Wal-Mart stores bearing the name of Ben Franklin. Wouldn’t Uncle Ben be proud?

Most Ben Franklin stores had a lunch counter where you could get a meal for 49 cents. This might include a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of tomato soup and a salad consisting of cottage cheese and a peach half on a piece of lettuce. Coffee or a coke was a nickel more.

Lots of people stopped and sat at the lunch counter on swivel seats with red or yellow vinyl tops. You might say that Ben Franklin started the fast food business. Their malted milks were outstanding.

Where could you buy school supplies other than the Ben Franklin store? You could say they had a monopoly. To this day I look forward to smelling a new box of Crayola crayons. When Crayola introduced its box of 64 crayons in the 1950’s that was about as good as life could get. Imagine, 64 different colors. It was like getting your iPhone today but not as good because iPhones don’t smell like anything.

The thing I appreciate most about the Ben Franklin stores was that they introduced me to rock and roll. In my hometown store there was a 45-rpm record rack. I think I was their best customer. Every week or so  I would visit it and spend 89 cents (money I earned working at the Red Owl store) to buy the latest hit. Do you know what? I still have all of my 45s. Most were purchased at Ben Franklin.

When I see the sign on our local Ben Franklin store here in Bemidji, my brain takes me back lots of years. I envision kids trying on masks, kids looking at the goldfish in the back of the store, kids sharing a malt at the lunch counter, kids opening up a box of crayons just to look at all of the colors and kids at the record stand deciding on what hit tune they are going to buy with money they saved from picking pennies off of the street.

Remember the old Ben Franklin stores? What great memories!

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.