Warrior in woolworths
Humble he may seem
Behind his serville innocence
He plots and he schemes

Woolworths, one of the UK’s longest running high street general stores, has recently gone into administration. This has heralded much discussion of the guts being ripped out of the “traditional British High Street” – discussions which are underlined with a heavy dose of nostalgia for times gone by.

It’s wrong to stick the boot in when someone is on the ground but my local branch has seemed a bit directionless for years – an uninspiring array of DVDs and computer games, piles of remaindered books and a bargain basement selection of kitchen equipment and kids’ clothes. The toys selection is (was?) OK, so our main reason for visiting has been to sort out material for kids’ birthday parties.

Warrior in woolworths
His roots are in today
Doesn’t know no history
He threw the past away

It wasn’t always thus. Pre-internet and even pre-catalogue shops like Argos, Woolies was pretty exciting. As a small child there was something wondrous about the vast layers of sweets in the “pick and mix” section – something which united kids and pensioners alike. In fact I remember being profoundly shocked, as a child, when I saw an ancient old man shoplifting from the pick ‘n’ mix – my whole perception of old people being respectable and boring was completely shattered! We exchanged glances and I’m sure my expression changed from horror to a wry smile…

In the early eighties Woolworths became a sort of pseudo living room for me on Saturday mornings. They had all the consumer durables that were absent from my family home. An Atari video game which was sometimes left on with joysticks attached (but usually without). Racks of seven inch singles – the entire Top 40 mapped out in picture sleeves. And the focal point – a large TV monitor with a showreel playing highlights of the VHS video cassettes that were for sale. This was in the days when there were only 3 channels on the telly and probably before the inception of breakfast TV. (My daughter simply doesn’t believe this.)

The showreel was a series of hints – little slabs of media which would fire your imagination but never satisfy. Bob Hoskins shouting and a pub exploding in “The Long Good Friday”, Freddie Mercury gyrating in skin-tight leather for the video of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, and some films which were probaby straight-to-video, like one I remember about a vigilante truck driver who went around terrorising kids who were interfering with the ambulance signals with their CB radios. Some Saturdays there would be a crowd of us watching it all the way through, maybe more than once.

My local “Our Price” was an intimidating place to be for a twelve year old – lots of towering teenagers in leather jackets, a bewlidering array of arcane material, surly counter staff. Of course I fell in love with the place a few years later, but Woolworths had a much more homely feel to it.

And so it came to be that one Saturday I reached up and handed over my saved up pocket money to the unthreateningly mumsy woman behind the counter and got a copy of Adam and The Ants’ “Kings of the Wild Frontier” on cassette in return. My first album, which I still have 28 years later. It still sounds great, too. Well, the actual cassette sounds terrible, but the mp3s I downloaded the other day are wicked – top pop tribalism all round.

Warrior in woolworths
Dips on friday nights
Youths meet at Stockwell tube
Weapons rule their lives

Amongst the nostalgia for pick ‘n’ mix there is also a feeling of dread. In an era of uncertainty it is perhaps only natural to look back to a time when things seemed more friendly – when it was less clear that our lives were dictated by forces completely outside our control.

I doubt that the woman who sold me my first album is still working, but her counterparts across the UK have unemployment snapping at their heels. It’s easy to romanticise the bleakness of boarded up shop windows and empty shopping centres populated by punks and skinheads when looking back at the 1980s, but it’s not much fun when that becomes a prospect in the here and now. So, unplug the jukebox…


  1. Had the pleasure of working in one, around ’96, for about a month. The supervisor was this really annoying girl whose breath smelled of dung.You do get a real feeling of power when it comes to the pick n mix, the electronic scales weren’t visible to customers so you could give discounts or overcharge at will, depending how much pressure you put on the scales, and how you felt about the person in front of you. There were two security guards, one a 23-stone bloke who didn’t fit into his uniform, and an ‘undercover’ girl with a bob cut and chunky legs who used to spend all day pretending to be a customer. She’d keep coming up and telling me about various kids who she suspected of shoplifting, like I cared, but it used to really piss off the security bloke.Looking back, I should have asked her out for a drink or something. Anyway, I lost my job after someone I knew came in and decided to arse around and show me up, getting me to scan things he’d bought elsewhere. Well, I was kind of ‘asked to leave’ unless I could guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, but by then I was gravitating towards the wild world of traffic enumeration anyway….

    Yeah, I remember buying, of all things, a Falco cassette in Woolworths (cringes and weeps), it was terrible.

  2. I also bought a copy of “Killers” by Iron Maiden on cassette in Our Price for £3.49, fancy that! I really liked the cover but that was terrible too. All the Athena postcard shops had 3 types of poster around ’87: the perv with his shirt off, hugging the naked baby; Madonna; and the Iron Maiden skeleton getting up to all wacky stuff.

  3. Where else could a lad buy for cheap all the post punk 45’s that reached 56, 67, 45 in the charts for one week? Bauhaus, The Skids and so on. They even stamped the 7″‘s in the reduced box with a red star so that we wouldn’t sneak a new one in the old pile.

    Just pure nostalgia init. Makes me wanna puke!

  4. Woollies was pretty much over by the time I came of age, but I did get my first single there – MC Hammer’s Addam’s Groove on cassette. My sister got God Gave Rock n Roll to You 2 by Kiss the same day.

  5. My favourite thing about our local Woollies was the half-arsed window displays. Last summer they left the parcel tape gun in the window, alongside a picnic blanket and some summery tat, for at least a couple of months.

  6. My life of crime began with a convicton for shop lifting from Woolworths in 1980. Fresh out of school aged 15 I was cauught red handed and taken to a cubicle at the back of the shop reserved no doubt for miscreants such as myself. After around 5 minutes waiting for the police to arrive I realised that they weren’t paying me much attention so made a bid for freedom. I got clean way too – unfortunately someone in the store recognised me from school and grassed me up.

    So good riddance Woolworths… I for one won’t miss you.

  7. It is unfortunate that they never let Martin take on window dressing in Woolworths, I think the application of the BTi aesthetic to high street displays would have been outstanding.

    T – fair play on doing a runner, what had you (allegedly) purloined?

  8. Perhaps I’m showing my social class here, but I got one of my mate’s sacked, in precisely the same manner, from Waitrose. Yes, yes, in Richmond.

  9. I think he’d be pleased at the sheer halcyon joy of being a teenager.

    I stole some fish and threw it at a bald bloke, so I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Swells knowing about it.

  10. Kings of the Wild Frontier was my first album too, it was on vinyl though and was a birthday or Christmas present from my uncle. Unfortunately I no longer have it as my mum threw it away.

  11. OMG! Kings of Wild Frontier from Woolworths on tape? first record-buying experience? Yeah, me too!! Whoo-hoo!

  12. hey
    how cum you guys all remember the first lp you bought,i’m lucky if i know what day of theweek it is.
    we used to buy 7” at rumbelos[i think it was called],a dodgy electrical store that stocked top 40 vinyl.
    my best woolies memory for me has gotta be when our local was turned over,i was about 16 & the first copper on the scene was our local estate bobby… and he was a proper cunt,if he caught you in a bit of bother… he’d give ya a gud slap[and not the open palm sort either] … anyway,i digress… he was caught filling the back of his panda with vcr players…

    other than that… fuck woolies… i smell the fall of capitalism baby. x

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