Inside the Last Operating Woolworth’s Lunch Counter
For some the name Woolworth’s can bring back fond memories of a tasty cheeseburger and a 5 cent Coke while seated at a lunch counter, perhaps after shopping for deals at the famed “Five & Dime.” In Bakersfield, you can still have that experience, although for a wee bit more than five and ten cents, and sadly only for about another month as the last operating Woolworth’s luncheonette is closing (supposedly temporarily) at the end of October.
While Woolworth’s had been in Bakersfield since 1911, it opened this location on May 5, 1950. For decades this Woolworth’s served locals, whether it was at the 74 foot long lunch counter or with the aisle of goods they offered. In January 1994 the Woolworth’s shuttered, and it was purchased by Mark and Linda Sheffield, who re-opened it as the Five and Dime Antique Mall in December of that year, while also continuing to operate the lunch counter, keeping with a simple menu of burgers, hot dogs, shakes and ice cold Coca-Cola. For over 30 years locals returned to the lunch counter, then dubbed Woolworth’s Diner, and continued their nostalgia trip by walking the aisles of the antique mall. Last month the building was purchased by Sherod Waite and David Anderson of the financial advice firm Moneywise Guys. “Our intention is to preserve the historic nature of the building. We are keeping the luncheonette and leaving the outside pretty much as it is,” Waite said in a news article. The pair are seeking new operators for the luncheonette, but also said it will be at least two years before it reopens, as they do other renovations to convert the building to their new headquarters. Meanwhile many of the antique dealers are seeking space at the other antique malls in the area and, thankfully, there are quite a few.
It is impossible to separate the happy-go-lucky memories some may have of Woolworth’s without recognizing the integral yet reluctant role that Woolworth’s played in the Civil Rights Movement. On February 1, 1960, four college students, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, sat at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter asking to be served. They were refused service, they remained, peacefully as a form of protest, and continued to ask to be served. While not the first sit-in for racial justice, this one gained national attention and sparked other sit-ins across the country. While Woolworth’s stores were not segregated (the four students had made purchases in the store prior to sitting at the counter) the luncheonette segregation was left to the discretion of the managers. Eventually, Woolworth’s changed their policy thanks to these four brave young men.
As Woolworth’s declined in the later part of the 20th century, the Greensboro location shuttered around the same time as the Bakersfield location, and announced plans to demolish it. A local radio station began a petition, which was endorsed by Reverend Jesse Jackson. Within three days Woolworth’s agreed to maintain the building while waiting for a new owner, eventually it was purchased and in 2010 became the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, where they preserved a portion of the original lunch counter. A four seat portion of the counter is also on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and some seats found a new home at the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Bakersfield makes for a great day trip for those living in the LA and Orange County areas. There are several antique malls, as well as the Kern County Museum (you can see photos from our visit earlier this year here) plus lots of amazing neon signs scattered throughout the city.
Sit at the Woolworth’s luncheonette at 1400 19th Street in Bakersfield before the end of October! And when it reopens, I look forward to visiting and updating you all.
November 2 Update: According to an October 30 article from the Bakersfield newspaper, the Five & Dime Antique Mall shutters on November 6, but the lunch counter will try to stay open until the full remodel needs to take place, which could be as early as January 2022. “The lunch counter is staying open through hell or high water,” Waite said in the article, “We are designing this entire building around keeping the lunch counter going.”
March 13 Update: According to a SF Gate article, the Woolworth’s is officially (but temporarily) closed for remodel. The article says they open to reopen in autumn of 2023.
“A potted history of F.W. Woolworth” The Woolorths Museum. Accessed September 20, 201.
Mayer, Steven. “Downton renaissance continues with Moneywise’s pending purchase of Woolworth’s building.” Bakersfield, 17 August 2021. Accessed September 20, 2021.
Plaques and newspaper articles on site.
Price, Robert. “Woolworth’s building in escrow; transformation ahead but, no, they’re not closing the iconic luncheonette.” KGET, 17 August 2021. Accessed September 20, 2021.
Wilson, Christopher. “The Moment When Four Students Sat Down to Take a Stand.” Smithsonian Magazine, 31 January 2020. Accessed September 20, 2021.
Leave a Comment!
Having trouble commenting? Contact me
One comment on “Inside the Last Operating Woolworth’s Lunch Counter”
What a fantastic slice of history. Woolworths existed in certain parts of Canada from the 1920s until the 1990s, with the subsidiary “Woolco” perhaps being the most common across the country (ultimately they were bought out in Canada by Walmart).
I can definitely remember a few Woolcos from my youth (complete with their own inhouse restaurants), though am not sure if I was ever in, or saw, a straight-up Woolworths in person.
You’ve piqued my interest now and I’ll be asking my mom if she recalls any during her lifetime (she was born in ’58).
Thank you for celebrating this long-standing department store chain and the last of their awesome lunch counters.
Autumn Zenith 🎃 Witchcrafted Life