A faded Woolworth’s store in East Harlem comes back in view

On a dreary stretch of Third Avenue at 121st Street in East Harlem is a block-long, two-story building emptied of tenants, waiting for the wrecking ball.

But hiding behind a metal frame on the exterior is a throwback to a very different New York: the faded imprint of a Woolworth’s sign against that iconic red backdrop: “F.W. Woolworth Co.”

Before Amazon, before Target, and before Walgreens there was Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime store chain that sold everything from underwear to goldfish to school supplies to sewing patterns throughout the 20th century.

Some had lunch counters, popular places to grab a cheap bite before the era of fast food and Starbucks. (Those lunch counters often attracted the down and out and lonely, as I recall from many, many trips to a Greenwich Village Woolworth’s as a kid.)

Woolworth had a strong presence in New York City. In Manhattan alone Woolworth’s occupied storefronts on Eighth Street, both ends of 14th Street, and all the major cross streets up to 125th Street.

Woolworth’s was once a regular shopping stop for all kinds of necessities; in New York City, they even played a role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet in it’s final decades, the store came off as shabby and doddering.

When the store at 2226 Third Avenue was built and then closed is something of a mystery. The last Woolworth’s in the US shut its doors in 1997.

I have a feeling this Woolworth’s disappeared long before that—though it existed in the 1930s, as the NYPL photo shows above, and it made it into the 1940 NYC tax photo, too.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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14 Responses to “A faded Woolworth’s store in East Harlem comes back in view”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    We had one in New Rochelle; you could even pick up the latest top 40 records, plus they had discount packs of a couple of recent hits surrounding two or three stiffs that you couldn’t see for a dollar. I found some pretty neat stuff that way!

  2. Kevin Says:

    I still miss the large Woolworths on the corner of 8th Ave and 23rd St. And they all had a certain smell….from popcorn if I recall. Also, I remember they all sold parakeets!

    • Jill Says:

      My cousin bought several parakeets from woolworths. She felt she was saving them from certain abuse.

  3. Erwin Schaub Says:

    Hi,
    I really like your e mails and posts, you do a great job.
    Sorry to read of the “lonely” the way you put it in this one on Woolworth’s. Compassion toward the lonely would be nicer than disparaging remarks. Many try the best they can. Some have been rejected and dumped by their families and friends, and they really don’t deserve such treatment. Please be a bit more sensitive.

    Erwin Schaub

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Erwin, and please do not think I am disparaging the lonely; I didn’t mean to imply this at all. Places like Woolworth’s that allow people to sit and eat and enjoy being out with others even if they arrive solo are what makes NYC so wonderful. We’ve all been that lonely person many times.

  4. fabulouslululolo Says:

    This was my neighborhood Woolworth’s. I have fond memories of all the Woolworth’s and loved the waffles and ice cream sandwiches. The one on 34 Street across from Macy’s was huge. Loved shopping at Woolworth’s.

  5. james bosley Says:

    Ex Lax and Alka Seltzer.

    • Ginger Says:

      My family either frequented the one Downtown Brooklyn on Fulton Street near Red Hook Lane, or my personal favorite, the one on Fulton near Nostrand Avenue in BedStuy.

      My siblings and I always went to the latter’s lunch counter and got tons of French fries with ketchup. I’ve been gifted many an Easter basket of goodies and loved the giant-sized satin Valentine’s Day chocolate boxes.

      I think around the time they were closing my mom made me pilfer some tagless nail polish I wanted, ha ha! She’s calmed down in her old age… 😅

  6. China Dream Says:

    back in the day we had one up here in Canada, it was around for along time and then… with time, it went away to be replaced by a Canadian store.

  7. pontifikator Says:

    I remember the one on 8th street well. I bought a set of Harlequinware there. Still have it.

  8. Greg Says:

    I used to go to the one on Austin St in Forrest Hills . .

  9. petlover1948 Says:

    And i went to the Woolworth’s on Jamaica Avenue. One in Jamaica and one in Richmond Hill

  10. Bob Says:

    By the time of the 1980 tax photo, it does not seem to exist, or be very prominent if it was on its last legs.

    https://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/s/9y0x3q

  11. Mark E. Phillips Says:

    I hope I hope I hope the new building will be a super-tall, luxury condo!!

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