The Five & Dime Antique Mall in Bakersfield, California, is filled with retro treasures. But for those who want to experience the past firsthand, the store also offers a piece of living history: the last operational Woolworth’s lunch counter.
Woolworth’s was a retail juggernaut from the late-19th through late-20th centuries. It all began in the 1870s, when Frank W. Woolworth decided to gamble on a novel idea: What if, instead of handing the shopkeeper your list and waiting as he gathered and priced your items, you could browse a store where everything was priced at five or ten cents? While Woolworth’s first store failed, his second attempt, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a hit. Other locations soon followed, and Woolworth’s branches popped up across the United States (and a few abroad).
For shoppers who grew peckish, many of these stores also featured luncheonettes. One such in-store eatery was the site of a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. In February 1960, a group of African-American students staged defiant sit-ins at a “whites-only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and remained there until closing time. Their ongoing protest sparked nationwide sit-ins and eventually led to the desegregation of all Woolworth’s lunch counters. (You can still see the Greensboro counter, but it no longer serves food.)
By the end of the 20th century, Woolworth’s was struggling to compete with other retailers, and in 1997, it closed its last American store. Although the luncheonette at the Bakersfield Five & Dime is no longer officially owned by the company, it’s almost exactly as Woolworth’s left it. With its vinyl stools, vintage signs, and formica countertop, the luncheonette is the last of its kind: a fully operational portal to the past where you can still enjoy a burger and a shake before diving back into bargain-hunting.
There is also a functioning original lunch counter in the Woolworth building in Asheville, North Carolina, which houses an art gallery.