When I heard the Ben Franklin chain stores were closing last October, I wondered, “Where will I get my cat mugs?” This silly thought was foremost in my brain, jumbled up with “It’s the end of an era.”
It was not truly the end of an era for me, since I did not go to my first Ben Franklin store until 2005. And the Ben Franklin chain, founded in 1927, was already not thriving in the early 21st century. It specialized in crafts, artificial flowers, Christmas decorations, knickknacks, wreaths and fake berries to put on the wreaths, yarn and sewing paraphernalia, mugs, memo pads, and journals. It was a fun place to browse, even if one was not a “crafter.”
Ben Franklin, the craft store, is erroneously grouped with the 20th-century dime stores, Kresge’s, founded in 1899, and Woolworth’s, founded in 1879. Of course the dime stores were very different from Ben Franklin, since they sold all and sundry, usually at cheap prices. At Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, you could eat a sandwich and drink a lemon coke at the soda fountain, then buy makeup, nail polish, a T-shirt with the corny slogan, I LOVE MY JOB, IT’S THE WORK I HATE!, jigsaw puzzles, birthday cards, kitchen utensils, and paperbacks. Kresge’s closed in 1987, Woolworth’s closed in 1997.
Ben Franklin was not the most popular store at the mall: Von Mauer, a department store, sold beautiful, expensive clothes, and had frequent sales; there was also a movie theater that showed all the commercial films. Then there was a cookie store, frequented by my mother and her best friend, who bought half-a-dozen oatmeal cookies after a movie.
My mother was not the kind who says “the end of an era” when a single store closes. She had seen end of an era on a larger scale: the death of downtown after a huge mall was built in a suburb. Many of her favorite stores closed over the decades: the dime stores, a local department store, three movie theaters, Seiffert’s (a women’s clothing store with great post-Christmas sales), a bakery, the A&P, the bookstores, and a candy store. Ben Franklin, hardly her favorite, was still in business when she died.
On our last visit to Ben Franklin, Mom wanted to buy me a Peruvian sweater. It was the kind of sweater I almost liked, but it was too scratchy to be comfortable. Fortunately, they did not have my size. We argued about the size. She imagined a smaller daughter. When I said I couldn’t button it, she said, “I think it looks nice unbuttoned.” In the end, she bought me the sweater and a cat mug. A compromise. Over the years, she bought me so many cat mugs: I have 8-oz. cat mugs, 12-oz. cat mugs, 16-oz cat mugs, and gigantic cat mugs that must hold at least a quart.
And I can’t bear to throw any away, even when they’re chipped.