Saturday, June 27, 2009

Cruisin' The Strip To Woolco

The photos above provide an in-depth look at one corner of a typical Woolco store from the mid-1960’s. Pictured is the “Auto Center” portion of the brand new Woolco at the Southroads Mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which opened in 1966. This, of course, was during the peak of the American car culture.

Auto Centers, then as now, typically consisted of an auto accessories section and a service department, where tires, batteries and tune-ups (required much more frequently by the cars of that era) were the main standbys. By the early 1960’s, auto centers were part of the normal discount store package, a standard feature in all Woolco stores and for most of their competition , including E.J. Korvette, Zayre and K-Mart. The ability to offer these departments was one of the many advantages that the Woolco discount store format had over the much smaller Woolworth’s variety stores. Auto centers weren’t the sole province of the discounters, however, but were staples of full-line department stores as well. Some of the larger (“Class A”-type) Sears stores had offered auto service as far back as the late 1930’s, and it was near-universal at Sears by the early 50’s. Montgomery Ward began to open auto centers in 1958 when they began to open large mall-based stores, and J.C. Penney opened its first one in Melbourne, Florida in 1963 as part of a major push to expand outside of their traditional soft goods arena.

Although I didn’t start driving until the very end of the 70’s and to my recollection never set foot in the auto center section of a Woolco, these photos bring back memories. For many of us who drove less-than-stellar cars in our youth, frequent trips to buy STP Oil Treatment or some other magic potion (or gas tank antifreeze in those Chicago winters) to keep the old beaters running were mandatory. In my case, it was usually K-Mart for auto supplies or the JCPenney Auto Center (which was later bought out by Firestone) for tires.

The photos are self-explanatory, but a few things are worth noting:

· This store has one of the last examples of the “I-beam grid” tower sign with the block-lettered Woolco logo. Some of Woolco’s second generation design elements were already in place on this store – the “zig-zag” awning had already been ditched in favor of something more modern-looking, and the silver painted script Woolco logo on glass had replaced the backlit plastic signs above the entrance doors.

· The chain’s standard 1960’s in-store signage can be clearly seen.

· The “TapeDek” display, featuring a brand new product at the time – the legendary 8-track tape, where an album’s songs were divided between four “channels”. If you’re over 35, chances are you have direct experience with those. I especially remember the “ker-chunk” sound our 8-track player would make when changing between the four channels on the tape. On several 8-track albums we had, the channel breaks were actually in the middle of a song, complete with a fade-out and fade-in at the break. Yikes!

· The huge accessory headrests, sold because headrests weren’t standard in every car at the time. Looks like they would have been somewhat uncomfortable.

· The cool-looking auxiliary gauge sets.

· “Station Wagon Pads.” Eh?

· The ceiling-hung lighting display near the motor oil.

· The circa 1961 Ford Falcon in the service bay. Guess Linus and Lucy’s folks must have shopped at Woolco.

· Lastly, the shop labor price sign, featuring several free services, wheel alignment for five bucks, and an oil change for under three bucks (98 cents labor plus five quarts of Havoline at 37 cents each). Wow!

One side note that you might find interesting –the location of this store, Tulsa, had a unique connection to the “American car culture” mentioned above. The city was home to the famous “Buried Plymouth”. Back in the mid-90’s or so, I bought a copy of the July 1, 1957 issue of Life magazine at an antique store. Inside was a fascinating article about the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood that had just taken place. The “main event” was the burial of a brand-new black and gold 1957 Plymouth Belvedere in a specially constructed vault beneath a Tulsa city park. The vault was designed to keep moisture out, hopefully preserving the car well enough to drive after all of those years underground. Tulsa residents were asked to guess what the population of their city would be at the time of the state’s centennial celebration in June 2007. The person with the closest guess (or their heirs) would win the car at the time it was exhumed, 50 years hence. The guesses were sealed within a metal container and buried along with the car.

I forgot all about the story until a few years ago, when I came across the magazine after storing it for years. Curious, I looked it up on the web, and by that time several websites had sprung up, fanning the flames of excitement about the soon-to-be revealed Plymouth. By the time June of ’07 rolled around, my oldest son and I had strongly considered driving out to Tulsa for the official unveiling. We ended up having a schedule conflict, so we decided to watch it on a live webcast instead. We were heartbroken (along with most Tulsans, I’m sure) to learn that the doggone vault had leaked and had been full of water for years, and the car was ruined. Even a trip to the Woolco Auto Center wouldn’t have helped it.
Thanks to the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society for use of these fine photos.


  1. A great 60's post. 24 months to pay for tires and no money down. I'm there. Very cool. Thanks.

  2. You just had to love the headrests for "preventing whiplash". I actually remember those things being in our garage! I can't imagine my dad was stupid enough to buy them given how frugal he is, but now I wonder if they were free?

  3. That's a bummer about the poor Plymouth with the water damage. All those years and that vault was probably faulty to begin with. Actually, I am kind of amused by this, and disppointed just as you and your son were, but amused nonetheless.

    That said I love the Ford Falcon photo! So cool. The line about the three dollar oil change also reminds me that my car's oil needs changing. I wonder why I am so lazy to get it done.....Oh, yea, because an oil change isn't three bucks anymore! If it was I'd be flying over to Jiffy Lube.

    Totally unrelated to Woolco's auto centers but it's about Woolco. A while back I read somewhere that Jerry Lewis did a movie in the 70s or maybe early 80s in which he's working at a Woolco (or something involving a Woolco) in which they had filmed in an actual Woolco store (I think it was Woolco). Any idea what I am babbling about and what the film's called? I remember when you first started your blog you featured photos from a 60s era Market Basket from a 60s era Jerry Lewis movie so I was wondering if you have that 70s era Woolco hanging around somewhere too. LOL! Sorry for the rant!

  4. Now I can see why people complained about the cheap interiors--the stores look less imaginative than the typical Woolworth dime store of the time. If they were relying on size rather than merchandising, they were pretty doomed to be an also-ran from the start.

  5. Anonymous said: Now I can see why people complained about the cheap interiors--the stores look less imaginative than the typical Woolworth dime store of the time. If they were relying on size rather than merchandising, they were pretty doomed to be an also-ran from the start.

    You hit the nail on the head. It's all about merchandising and even as a teen/pre-teen, the stores that understood merchandising were the ones that were able to hook me in. That's why the Kroger Superstore, Kmart and Gold Circle prototypes resonated with as a youth. They were simply attractive environments to shop in.

    On another note, the pictures of that store in the article are very bright. I remember the Woolcos here being a lot dimmer in terms of lighting. Perhaps it was the garish 60's era flourescent tubes? I must admit that the shelf arrangements presented in the pictures were very handsome, though.

  6. The early K-Marts were only marginally better than these stores and they did not age well. K-Mart did not seem to even refresh the paint. The stores they built in the late 70s and especially after they mid-80s were much better. The had a great prototype for remodels in the 80s that they never rolled out on a wide scale.

  7. Great photos! I never had any shopping experiences at a Woolco. I don't know that color photos would have made this store look any less blah! I know that we probably could have used that Station Wagon Pad in the 11th photo as our young rear ends bounced around the back of the Country Squire wagon back in the day!

  8. The plain interior design screams lowball, though the shelf arrangements are better than found in the typical discount stores of the era. The Woolco diamond logo on the wall jumps out due to the otherwise plain Jane decor and its similarity to the old National supermarket logo and Overnight Trucking's logo.

  9. I love these pic Dave! So detailed! Especially the Falcon. I still have a '64 Falcon which my Dad gave me when I was 16. Many many days and cash spent (another idler arm and tie rod end to replace!?!?!) at Sears Auto Center keeping it going back in the 1980's!
    The pics look like most of the Mass Merchandiser auto departments. I used to be a mechanic. A important thing to think about the labor rates is that those cars were a lot easier to work on compared to modern vehicles.
    Important items to note, like you had mentioned, the car culture and the discount retailers really changed the marketing of auto parts and service. Auto parts used to be in plain boxes and sold by the repair shops or private owned parts stores. Then the advent of the mass merchandisers, parts manufacturers had to spend more on packaging so customers could see and read why they should by their product. Also so it could look and stack nice on the retail store shelf. Also auto repair from national retailers gave customers more confidence and reliability (and most times warranty) buying parts and service from a 'company' than having their car worked on private owned gas stations/repair shops. It also gave them another choice than the dealership. It was another way to get customers in the store. Drop off your car for service and while your waiting shop for some items in the store. Have a bite to eat at the lunch counter/cafe!

  10. Love the stacks of Scientifically Treated Petroleum, better known as STP. And stacks of oil cans! Remember how we had to have a special spout that would "stab" the lid of the oil can to get the oil out?!?

    Also the first picture must be a 'parking lot sale'?? Oh I remember those back in the day! That used to be a huge marketing/promotion gimmick for the stores of the era. When I used to work for Kmart we would close off portion of the parking lot and drag pallets of merchandise for Memorial Day and 4th of July & Labor Day Sales. We would have to roll the pallets in and out every day--couldn't leave it outside overnight with security!

  11. The Ford Falcon fits perfectly with Woolco, innocuous car, innocuous store. If Woolco was the successor to Woolworth, then the Falcon was the successor to the Ford Model T, a simplistic affordable easily maintained car that one could have in any color as long as it was black. In the case of Woolco, the exterior might be more appropriately compared to a Mustang than a Falcon, given the interior blandness, after all the Mustang was a Falcon(with some Fairlane hardware) in a glitzier shell.

    Even now, the shelves of any given Walmart or Kmart are not as well stocked as in the photos, and I'm sure the Woolco that the customers encountered was not so well arranged either.

  12. Richard - Thanks! And I'm with you on that, what a deal!

    Danny - Those headrests are so huge, they'd keep you staring at the floorboards! Maybe the ones your dad had were a dealer throw-in.

    Didi- Regarding the Plymouth, it definitely was sad, because so many people in Tulsa had built up their hopes for years leading up to the dig-up. I felt especially bad for the man who built the (non)waterproof vault in 1957. He was 90-something years old and was present at the ceremony!

    I think the movie you're thinking of is "Who's Minding the Store", a Jerry Lewis flick from 1963. It's actually set in a fictional downtown department store, but the interior scenes recall many of those shown on this website, and lots of brand names are visible. It's a great slapstick movie with a nice love story. Jerry's love interest is Jill St. John, who plays the daughter of the department store owner. It's rumored to be coming out on DVD this fall. Well worth seeing!

    Anonymous - The Woolworth store interiors definitely had more "variety"! (Ok, I'll shut up now.)

    Danny – Everything I’ve seen about the Kroger Superstores and Gold Circle would make me agree with you, and of course I remember Kmart well from personal experience. I think as least as far as an Auto Center goes, the Woolco pictured would compare to the others favorably.

    Anonymous – My most memorable experiences with Kmart took place in the older stores, and most of the later redesigns I’m only familiar with from pictures. I agree they looked good, and it’s a shame they didn’t get them rolled out quicker. They had time.

    Adrienne – Now that you mention it, those pads do make a lot of sense! We had a Ford Torino wagon for a couple of years in the 70’s, and the thin carpet in the back area didn’t provide much padding!

    The interiors definitely look better in color. Good to hear from you!

    Ken – Hadn’t even thought of the National Tea logo, but you’re right. (And on the Overnite one as well.)

    Mr. BlueLight - Thanks, you make a lot of excellent points! Attractive packaging really wasn’t needed during the pre- mass merchandiser era. Parts were either in plain boxes or bulk bins. Of course, the auto parts chains later took a page from the discounters and went to a self-service model, at which point nice packaging became a must. And I agree, the snack bar was a real convenience for the auto center customers (and source of $ for Woolco).

    And after all these years, I finally know what STP means! My mom met Andy Granatelli in the late 60’s when her company did some work for STP.

    And you’re right about those parking lot sales (known oftentimes as “truckload sales”) – definitely a thing of the past! Lastly, I learned what tie rod ends (and several other front end parts) were for to the tune about $300 dropped at a Goodyear dealer, huge money for the 19-year old I was at the time. Not a repair you can put off, though!

    Ken – That’s a good analogy on the Falcon. It was way ahead of its time, going against the grain when most Americans wouldn’t consider small cars. It was a brilliant move for Ford to transform the humble Falcon into the sporty, mega-selling Mustang.

    Given that this Woolco store was new at the time, I’m sure they had their best foot forward as far as in-stock position went.

  13. Falcons were lemons (esp. the earliest ones) and places like K-Mart, Woolco, Sears, et al. were the last places you wanted to go for car repairs. The reliability was awful and they were just as likely (if not more) to cheat you or suggest unneeded repairs. That's one reason these didn't last. They clearly targeted people who didn't know much about cars and probably disappeared with the advent of relatively reliable foreign cars and the long-term dissatisfaction with their work.

  14. I felt especially bad for the man who built the (non)waterproof vault in 1957. He was 90-something years old and was present at the ceremony!

    Oh, no, that's so heartbreaking! Poor guy. I'm sure it wasn't his fault. Things happen.

    Thanks for answering my question about the film though. It's a shame it's not out on DVD yet!

  15. I'm surprised to see the Auto Center located under the main store like it was in this set. Most Woolcos had it located behind the garden shop.

    The interior shots won't qualify for Store of the Year, but it wasn't bad for a discount store of the era. The merchandising was orderly and tasteful and the lighting and floors had the classic Woolco look.

    Both Woolworth and Woolco used the red diamond logo in the '60s.

  16. The station wagon pads were meant to cover the metal platform that was created when the seats were put down in the car. We had 2 of them snapped together for my sister and I in the back of our 1965 Plymouth Fury wagon. Covered with a full-sized fitted sheet, they made a more than sufficient bed for us when my parents loaded us into the car at 4:30 AM for our 13 hour yearly drive to Grammy's house in Ohio...Wish we had some of those headrests though, b/c this was our first car with power brakes. Mom wasn't used to them, and every time she hit the brakes, our heads hit the front seats!

  17. 2/2/12 Wrote:
    Those 1961 Ford Falcolns with Linus and Pig Pen were memorable. They were usually seen on NBC TV from 1959-64 as part of "The Ford Showcase featuring Tennissee Ernie Ford" in Living Color. Bill Melendez and Lee Mendhelson were involved with these ads right from the beginning, which led to the next Peanuts project, "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" in 1963,broadcasted on NBC in 1965. When Melendez and Mendhelson came to NBC's Fred Freindly and his son Edward in 1965 for the Christmas project, they were turned down flat. Ed Friendly then proposed the project with Coca-Cola,who then tried to persuade rival CBS to buy the project. After nearly turning it down by some stern CBS executives, the show was finally adopted in the eleventh hour, and finally shown on December 1965 to excellent reviews and ratings, and a 1967 Peabody Award and 1966 Emmy Award for best animated TV show.The original 1963 special was later re-broadcasted on CBS in 1969. The Falcolns themselves were mass-marketed right here in my homestate of Michigan, and were Ford's top sellers in the compact division until 1964 with the arrival of Lee Iacoca's Mustang.It was considered a good compact car by many, although, as one of your bloggers pointed out, there were complaints that it was also a lemon. After all, it was concieved by Robert S. MacNamera, who would later go on to make a fool of himself with the handling of the Vietnam War as Secretary of Defense, hired by John F. Kennedy. Ford motors had a huge plant in River Rouge, Michigan at the time and a beautiful Rotunda building in Dearborn, which sadly burned to the ground in November 1962, when a welding foreman foolishly left his blowtorch burning on the hot tar during a re-modeling of the roof. The Woolco stores themselves were interesting, if a bit drab as your photos of the Tulsa Woolco store from 1966 pointed out. Detroit had a few Woolco stores at the time, although they were dominated in name by its' parent company, Woolworth's, and Michigan stores usually went by that name.Today, Woolworth's/Woolco sadly no longer exsists in The U.S., but a few Woolco stores remain in the Canadian provindences.

  18. This store was torn down around 1996. Southroads mall is now a strip center. It was one of the first enclosed malls in the state.

  19. Just found your blog due to Craig over at Hover Motor Company - love this stuff!
    Not to be argumentative, but anon above is incorrect. This building is indeed extant and is currently a Reasors. The automotive bays are now loading docks. When the mall's 'facelift' was done, the area behind the old Woolco was scooped out, lowering the entrance and the back parking lot, to make the openings functionally suitable for 'truck height' dock entrances.
    Once Woolco left, this part of the building turned into something else, exactly what, I cant remember. Memory says it was something like Service Merchandise, Edisons or maybe a Gibsons. Nah, wasnt a Gibsons, but cant remember exactly what it was. Service Merchandise i think. Anyway, after that, it was a John A Brown's, followed by Sanger Harris which was morphed into a Foleys as I remember. It is now a Reasors Grocery.
    Actually, the whole mall still exists. The original framework and shape can be seen from above - go to one of the higher floors of one of the taller office buildings nearby and such is evident. When Southroads Mall was 'renovated' , the original structure was not torn down; there were merely new facias installed, the businesses were partitioned off from each other by walls ala strip center and a couple of extensions were added to make the face not so flat and uniform. An extension was added on the east side off of what was Vandever's east wall as I remember, to house some smaller enterprises like the relocated Coney I-Lander, and there was a protrusion and upward extension made to the back/north side to facilitate the new multi- screen theatre. That uses part of the downstairs where Looboyles, Poise- N -Ivy etc used to reside I believe, the rest of the 'basement' being storage and mechanicals. But technically, the mall is still there.
    Ironically, Southland shopping center across the street has now been turned INTO a mall... [Promenade] They enclosed the whole shopping center, adding a bit here and there, making it into the second largest mall in the area. Go figure...

  20. comment continued...
    Anyway, loved the pictures. You have now verified for me, the existence of what I thought one of the preeminent aftermarket accessories of the time, that no one else seems to remember - the add on headrest. If you look at any of my drawings of cars from that period [my mom kept most of them] you will note one of those lollipop looking round headrests on nearly all of them. I always wanted a 55 Chevy with those headrests and a metalflake steering wheel...
    As for the buried 57 Plymouth - it probably actually wasnt the 'vault' maker's fault. At least not entirely. There was a MAJOR main water line breakage in the mid to late 70s right in the area of the buried car. More than likely, the vault was damaged by repair crews [had the place torn up for a block or two as I remember] as well as pressured inordinately [no pun intended] by the break itself. Either way, it was a shame. The city buried another Plymouth, this time a Prowler, in a park in 1998 to commemorate the city's 100th anniversary. It is to be opened in 50 years also...
    I know 'Cruisin the Strip...' is a generic reference to times, automobiles etc, but in Tulsa, cruisin the strip meant Peoria in 1966...
    Falcons = lemons?!? I dont think so... dull and uninteresting [in non Sprint form at least] , but by and large quite reliable and utilitarian. My dad had a 62 Ranchero when I was a little kid, and he used it like a real pickup truck for a few years with nary a problem. Then he DID get a real truck, but I wont start telling car stories here.
    Hafta agree with some of the prior posters about the 'down market' look - but thats what Woolco was - a discount store. Still, their displays looked pretty darn good. Especially the oil cans, the Cragar S/S's and of course the headrests. Curious as to what brand the gauge sets are - cant make it out.
    Thanks again for this post - REALLY enjoyed it. Will continue looking around the site and shall try to not be so verbose in the future!

  21. I barely remember Woolco and wish it's still around. When I was old enough to drive, I guess the nearest Woolco was too far for me to go to, and I'd yet to finish college. (I remember the store from having to move around many times in my childhood).

    Anyway, seeing the 17th photo above, showing the garages and streetlights guiding the shoppers in and out struck me as somewhat familiar. No, I'd never seen it and I hadn't lived in Tulsa yet. When I moved there in '91, it'd already looked different and I didn't even know a Woolco once existed there. What I do remember in particular were a few of the streetlights in the back, one with a glare shield right by Sheridan (they were removed when a new cinema w/ stadium-style seating was built there...I was there one time and was impressed by how easy it was to see the screen).

    Anyway, back to what I remember...the streetlights. The one right by Sheridan looked identical to the one shown at right in the 17th photo sans the shield. That's why I figured it had to be the back of Southroads Mall.

    I got to visit SM one time but felt kinda spooked by it. See, that was in the mid to late '90s and I'd never seen so many vacancies in one mall my entire life. I couldn't wait to leave and decided I wouldn't return. I'd moved on but when I learned a new Barnes & Noble and Reasor's grocery store would be built there, I started thinking of Southroads again. By then the corridor I remember was no more. YrHmblHst above was correct that the whole "mall" is still there, in physical form only. The building's still there and yes, some changes had been made which would leave those who remember Southroads wonder where the entrance for Woolco, I regret to say I didn't even know there was a Woolco in Tulsa, but it's good to know that. Thanks for sharing your memories. I had fun reading!

  22. Edit by same Anonymous (April 6, 2013 at 12:46 PM)...this is me again, Darren. It's Yale, not Sheridan. My mistake. Arterials in Tulsa are rather easy to confuse. Sigh lol