Six days after Christmas, Francis Brackett, a diffident gray-haired woman who wears butterfly-rim eye-glasses and sells such things as skate keys, corks and ribbons by the yard, will be unemployed.
For the first time in 27 years, the 63-year-old woman will not be behind the ancient brown cash register in the Ben Franklin Five and Dime on Columbia Pike, an Arlington institution where two generations of Northern Virginians have rented a white plaster stork for baby showers and where a skate key still costs 10 cents.
The Ben Franklin is closing because of a rent increase and the store's two owners and six employes are moving through a melancholy Christmas season.
The dime store joins hundreds of similar stores across the country that have folded in recent years because they couldn't compete with large chain discount stores like Kmart, according to Arlington County planner James B. Snyder.
Being part of a national trend has been no consolation, however, to people living near the Ben Franklin in south Arlingotn who have depended on it for items ranging from pens to nylon stockings.
"It has been depressing," said owner Sheila Benton, "to listen to our customers about how they grew up with the store and cna't understand why it has to close."
"Yes, it is sad," agreed Francis Brackett, who plans to go out on Columbia Pike in search of another job, leaving behind the cluttered store where she sold baby clothes to customers who had first come to her as little girls buying penny candy.
"I've put in for my Social Security.
I'm deciding whether to buy Christmas presents for my sisters and brothers. Of course, I've already got gifts for my nieces and nephews," said Brackett, who has never married and lives in a small apartment near the store with her 83-year-old mother.
The Ben Franklin, which sits at the center of the Westmont Shopping Center, one of the oldest shopping centers in Northern Virginia, is 60 percent empty now. A going-ou-of-business sale that began on Pearl Harbor Day has stripped the aisles, leaving snippets of ribbon, pot-mending kits, children's birthday hats, and naked shelves, which are themselves for sale.
The store's annual Christmas party, held always on the day before Christmas with cookies, food and coffee, will be different this year, according to owner John Benton. "I'm going to be drinking something stronger than coffee," Benton said.
Benton, 46 and his wife, Sheila, bought the store for $50,000 five years ago. They say they are closing it because their profit margin is not high enough to meet a more than doubling of their rent.
The rent, currently about $400 a month, has not been increased for 10 years. Benton said he does not question his landlord's right to ask for more money.
"It's just not possible to make it with a little mom and pop dime store," he said. "It's impossible to have a personal store because once you get busy enough to make money you only see the merchandise and the money."
Benton said he and his wife will be lucky if they can leave the store at CLOSING, From B1>
the first of the year with their debts paid off. "We ended up earning what amounted to a salary for the five years. But we were the boss; when something went right we patted ourselves on the back and when something went wrong we were the only ones to blame," Benton said.
The store, even as bargain hunters picked it clean this month, was hung with Christmas decorations, garlands of green and silver.
Catherine Bullock, who has worked at the Ben Franklin with her husband, Robert, for 10 years, said Christmas does not seem right this year.
"It's not good," she said. "Around Christmas time we should be building, not tearing everything down."