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More downtown memories: Bruce Bell is back and he’s taking you on a stroll through Woolworth’s

Sadly, Woolworth closed in 1994 and the whole building was eventually torn down and with it, the downtown would change forever
A postcard from the heyday of downtown Sudbury with the Woolworth store prominently displayed.

The swinging '60s was downtown Sudbury's golden era.

For those of us lucky enough to have come of age in the 1960s, the downtown area was a thriving place full of stores, restaurants and movie theatres.

At the centre of this vibrant downtown was a department store, and not just any department store, it was a destination.

I have such wonderful memories of the former Woolworth store that at one time stood at the intersection of Elm and Durham.

The F. W. Woolworth Company opened its first store in Sudbury on the east side of Durham Street between Larch and Cedar Street on April 1, 1916.

That first Woolworth's was a hit with locals as everything was either five cents or 10 cents, hence it became known as the 'five and dime' store.

As Sudbury grew, so did Woolworth's.

In 1959, on the southeast corner of Elm and Durham, the old Post Office — one of the most beautiful buildings Sudbury ever knew — was sadly demolished.

It was here on then the most prestigious corner in the downtown core that Woolworth moved into the tallest building in Sudbury, taking over the main and lower floors.

The upper floors of this brand-spankin’ new five-storey building housed dentist and doctors offices alongside insurance and loan companies.

I remember you would enter Woolworth's through its main door at Durham and Elm and immediately to your right was the famous Woolworth bakery.

This bakery always displayed its wedding cakes in their front window alongside delicious displays of cookies, donuts, cakes and pies, all freshly baked that day in the store.

My mother would sometimes bake wedding cakes for friends and family, and then take them down to Woolworth's where the bakers would decorated them.

Next to the bakery was the sit-down cafeteria known for its fries with gravy and apple dumpling pie with ice cream.

The restaurant wasn't as fancy as the one at the Kresge's store down the street, but you did sit in blue and yellow vinyl booths while waitresses in those memorable Woolworth uniforms, complete with aprons and paper bonnets, came by to fill your coffee cup.

As you made your way to the centre of the store you came to the girls and women's clothes department.

In the summer, the front of the store was given to souvenirs, always chock full of Big Nickel keepsakes.

At the back of the store was Woolworth's excellent record department.  

In the 1960s, because Sudbury was on the Trans-Canada highway, hundreds of hitchhiking hippies made their way to our fair city as a stop over to Toronto.

Maybe because Woolworth was known the world over, many a young person new to Sudbury made a beeline to the record department at Woolworth's.

It was here many of us who grew up in the 1960s bought our Jefferson Airplane and Beatles albums, but more importantly got to talk to likeminded music lovers.

I should also point out, it wasn't just modern music sold at Woolworth's, because I remember buying my first copy of Beethoven's 9th Symphony there.

Between the restaurant and record department was the photo booth where you could get four black and white photos for 25 cents.

I always remember, either alone or with friends, waiting for the light to flash hoping I wouldn't look like a dork, waiting with anticipation for the photos to slip out of the slot.

I still have a few strips of photos taken at that booth and I often think how many people in the days before selfies went to that 25-cent booth?

Beside the record department was the men's suit, sock and underwear section.

On the other side of the store facing Elm Street was the lunch counter, where I remember on opening day in 1959 my mom taking me as they were giving away free banana splits.

This iconic dessert of ice cream, a split banana, crushed nuts, whipped cream and topped off with a maraschino cherry came served in a plastic boat. I kept that boat for years, and I wish I still had it.

At the back of the store next to the lunch counter after you stepped down a few steps, you would open a pair of glass doors that led to the lobby of the office tower and its elevators.

You could also enter this lobby from Elm Street where the entrance was under an awning that hung over the sidewalk.

Once I discovered this elevator lobby, I would take my friends to the top of the building where you could get a pretty good view of downtown Sudbury.

In the middle of the store was an escalator that took you downstairs where the toy department was located.

Downstairs you could also find housewares, boys wear and the pet store.

How many of us bought our first goldfish in a water-filled plastic bag at Woolworth's only to have it flushed down the toilet dead a week later.

Downtown Sudbury in the 1960s and 1970s was a bustling destination, a happening place to meet your friends after school.

Maybe it's a longing for a youth that in reality wasn't all that quixotic, but it's how I remember it.

Sadly, Woolworth closed in 1994 and the whole building was eventually torn down and with it, the downtown would change forever.

Bruce Bell is a former Sudburian, now living in Toronto. He shared his memories of Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. Last month, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here.