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The Lunch Ladies

Woolworth workers still gather socially

August 31, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

Flora Shafer-Ernst and Barbara Viskup work together much as they did in 1993 at F.W. Woolworth - but now it's at the Salvation Army Family Store.

Former employees of Woolworth's have been getting together on a weekly basis ever since the store closed in 1993.

"It was [Viskup's] idea," Shafer-Ernst said. "We didn't want to lose touch."

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
From left, Flora Shafer-Ernst, Sandy Allen, Mariella Atkins and Barbara Viskup play pitch at Debbie Tubbs’ home in Johnstown Aug. 19.

After trying different things, the ladies decided on pitch card games with two four-person teams so they have kept their number at eight per meeting. As a couple of members have died over the years, other family and friends have filled those spots.

"It's a family affair," Shafer-Ernst said. "We worked as a team at Woolworth's. We all had to work each others' stations. [Viskup] was the boss."

Al Morici was the last manager of the store, coming in 1986 and closing the store down in the fall of 1993. He now works for Marshall's in Glenmont.

"I know the girls still get together for cards," Morici said. "It really was like a family. I was a big city boy when I came and they made me feel right at home."

Morici said Woolworth was a good employer.

"They were a nice company," he said. "I enjoyed working for them."

When he first came to the store, he said he was surprised by the rows of rolling shelving stored downstairs.

"When I first got there, [Viskup] took me to the stockroom downstairs packed with three-tier carts," Morici said. "She told me 'You'll need all of them in May,' and I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"

Morici said he was amazed by the amount of plants sold at the store and the carts which "took over the sidewalk as well as the walk in the park beside the store. We dealt with local greenhouses for the plants we sold," Morici said.

He also had good memories of the lunch counter, he said.

"The former manager, Mr. Sluyter, said they used to grow vegetables for the lunch counter on the roof," Morici said. "Artie Brown always could make people smile at the counter. We had a lot of repeat customers there. It was a real gathering place."

Sandy Allen, one of the card-playing group who worked at the Woolworth lunch counter for six months said the counter was her second home.

"I worked three jobs," Allen said. "I also worked at Ames."

Deb Conye and her mother Mariella Atkins are both part of the group. Atkins said she worked six or seven years behind the lunch counter.

"They begged me to come back," Atkins said with a laugh.

Dorothy Samson said she worked at the store 32 years.

"I worked all over," Samson said.

As floor manager, Viskup said she put in 25 years and did much of the "hiring and firing" in her years there.

Debbie Tubbs, who hosted the card party Aug. 19, said she worked 10 years in the pet department and housewares.

Viskup said her mother helped out potting plants and also was a babysitter for Allen.

"We have a lot of connections," Viskup said.

She said the group started with breakfast meetings and then switched to evenings and pitch games.

Shafer-Ernst said at first they played seven games, but that went too long. So they brought it down to five games per evening.

"It's the only time we all get to see each," Shafer-Ernst said. "We get to share family news and pictures, and get a few hands of pitch in."

The group meets for Christmas parties with a theme. They have had pajama theme parties, Hawaiian and Western themes for their parties.

"Harold's let us have the PJ party there and we haven't been kicked out yet," Shafer-Ernst said.

Allen said her favorite meal at the lunch counter was the thin-steak-and-cheese sandwich with fries.

"We had a great camaraderie there," Shafer-Ernst said. "Not a week goes by that someone doesn't mention those days at Woolworth's."

She said she values the weekly meetings, but that they rarely get together outside the card parties.

"Once a week is enough," Shafer-Ernst said with a laugh.

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at



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