“The World through the Dime Store Door: A Memoir”
Author: Aileen Kilgore Henderson
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $24.95 (Hardcover)
Any discussion of Aileen Kilgore Henderson will begin with considering some amazing numbers.
This new book, her eighth, is being published in Henderson’s ninety-ninth year.
Her first book, “The Summer of the Bonepile Monster,” did not appear until Ms. Henderson was 74.
She has published four books for children, a nonfiction work on Alabama State Geologist Eugene Allen Smith and two previous volumes of memoir which tell her life story after “Dime Store.”
In 2001 Henderson published “Stateside Soldier: Life in the Women’s Army Corps, 1944-1945” which follows “Dime Store” directly and then, after she had gone to college on the G.I. Bill, married and begun a teaching career, “Tenderfoot Teacher: Letters from the Big Bend, 1953-54” (in Texas).
Henderson tells us that she began keeping a kind of journal when she was only eight, in 1929, and that her family keeps all letters, a darned good idea.
“Dimestore” is richer and more detailed than would be possible if relying entirely on memory.
This short and pleasant book tells the story of one little girl in Tuscaloosa County, but also gives the reader a pretty vivid first-hand account of life here 90 years ago.
Some of it is surprising.
Her first chapter describes living in a coal mining camp in Cedar Cove, Alabama.
This might have been a litany of horrors: poverty, hunger, isolation.
But it really isn’t. The chapter begins “I was born into paradise.” Life in the company town was plain, no electricity or running water, true, but idyllic in its own way. Henderson and her family ate healthy foods—not varied or fancy—lots of butter beans and cornbread.
Folks had parties, made their own music, cooked candy, grew flowers, made up games and stories, enjoyed their pets. The schoolhouse, she tells us was “a place of magic.” There were books she “raced through, savored and puzzled over.”
The Henderson home was five rooms, then behind that, a garden, cow shed, chicken house, pigpen and, farthest back, the privy.
No paradise is without its serpent, however. Henderson tells us that she eventually became aware that the company cheated every miner every day on the amount of coal he had dug. There was no one to complain to: no union, no investigative reporters, no other jobs to go to.
The family moved to Brookwood and, after graduating from high school in 1938, Aileen took a job at Kress’ Department store, one of four in Tuscaloosa at the time. For months, she made a long commute by bus, then moved to the city where she shared a rented room with her sister.
Many of us remember fondly the five and dimes of the ’50s and ’60s. Henderson tells us of these stores in the ’30s and early ’40s. They thrived, with clerks on the run all day long.
Kress sold simple non-prescription glasses—they magnified—for 50 cents, plastic rimmed, or, for 25 cents, with metal frames.
Sales were brisk: “On a typical Saturday we sold at least twenty-two pairs of the fifty-centers and many more pairs of the twenty-five centers.” One December 22, “we sold twenty-three sixty-cent purses and twenty-four fifty- cent purses.”
Pop culture was powerful stuff. When Scarlett O’Hara wore a hair snood in “Gone with the Wind,” Henderson sold 67 the first day they were in. Kress, wisely had ordered 92 dozen.
All this in a town that had three other department stores!
Henderson writes with some amusement of that much more genteel day.
“A most important item was the sanitary supplies that women need. Some people were utterly chawed to buy Kotex or Modess or Kress’ cheaper sanitary napkins, Sanovel.” Men were especially nervous. They might hand her a note indicating their need and then “While I wrapped their packages, they lurked at a neighboring counter, pretending they didn’t have any connection to me or my counter’s contents.”
Counter girls were paid, but poorly, and there was no health insurance.
Henderson had to save up for a tonsillectomy. Later, an appendectomy cost $100.00 at a time when she earned “$9.80 for six days work.”
Sometimes we are tempted when encountering the wages of past decades, to think yes, but that much money went a lot farther then. It has been my experience that this is rarely true.
Henderson includes reports on her sister’s love life, sketches of her fellow workers and their customers but most importantly tells us what Tuscaloosa felt like, as the country moved through the Depression and into the war years, with Royal Air Force cadets at Van de Graaff Field and the New York National Guard training just east of town.
It was a new world, changed forever, and Aileen Kilgore would go out into that new world and live a long and interesting life, giving us pictures of a lot of it.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.