Los Angeles Times
Did Trojans Use Trojans?: A Trip Inside the Corner Drugstoreby Vince Staten
Continuing his delightful tour of cherished American institutions, the writer who explored grocery stores in Can You Trust a Tomato in January? and hardware emporiums in Did Monkeys Invent the Monkey Wrench? now takes readers down the aisles of the corner drugstore, the heart of small-town America. Staten re-creates the glorious arrays of salves,/i>/i>… See more details below
Continuing his delightful tour of cherished American institutions, the writer who explored grocery stores in Can You Trust a Tomato in January? and hardware emporiums in Did Monkeys Invent the Monkey Wrench? now takes readers down the aisles of the corner drugstore, the heart of small-town America. Staten re-creates the glorious arrays of salves, patent medicines, and mysterious lotions packed on drugstore shelves, bringing to life the trusted pharmacist who explained it all. His charming anecdotes will stir up a host of memories: The dating rituals conducted at the soda fountain; those life-changing decisions about hair coloring; and perhaps those whispered requests for condoms.
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There we are on page 97 of my high school yearbook: Cynthia Perry and Dale Hickam, Jean Rogers and Danny Pomeroy, Steve Lambert and Mary McAlpine, and my elbow, just creeping into the frame. We were posing for the yearbook photographer at the local teen hangout, the soda fountain of Armour's Drugs. Armour's was just two blocks from school. An easy walk, except that no one walked. We drove. We were seniors.
Armour's Drugs was the place to see and be seen, to nurse a cherry Coke for an hour while you kept your eye on the front door, hoping that SHE -- whoever she was this week -- would stroll in. And also hoping that SHE wouldn't be with some other boy. And maybe she would sit down next to you and you could call out to Mabel to get you another straw and you two could sit there, sharing a cherry Coke, like a picture out of The Saturday Evening Post.
Maybe that's why I got cut out of the picture that long-ago day. I wasn't with someone; I was watching for HER.
That was the drugstore of my youth. A social center for teenagers, and a community center for adults. While we sat around posing for that photo perhaps a dozen moms came in, some to pick up prescriptions, others to pick up what are today grocery items: toothpaste, shampoo, aspirin. They would stop and talk with old Doc Armour, because he was the master of ceremonies of the drugstore. He did more than dispense drugs from his perch in the back of the store. He also dispensed gossip and advice. He knew it all -- who was sick, who was well, who was in the hospital, who was back at home. There was always a new patent medicine to cure the common cold, a new ointment for backaches and a new powder for itches.Maybe he was practicing medicine without a license, but that's what family pharmacists did in the sixties.
Drugs were Doc Armour's main business. That was, after all, his middle name: Armour's Drug Store. Back then, no one just ran into the drugstore, grabbed up their stuff and ran right out. The drugstore was a place to linger, to catch up.
Even eat. I had many a drugstore lunch in my youth. When my mother and I would "go to town" (a weekly event, even though we only lived five hundred feet outside the city limits), we'd always have lunch at Freel's Drug, home of the best grilled cheese sandwich in America.
The drugstore was the cracker barrel of the city.
Armour's Drugs was the place where my crowd congregated after school. But by the time we got around to posing for the yearbook photo, Armour's was on its way out as the place to see and be seen. Heck, it closed at six o'clock.
There was this new place up the road, right across the street from my father's hardware store, as a matter of fact, and this new place stayed open well into the night. There was no counter and no booths and no place to sit except on the hood of your car, but by 1965 McDonald's was well on its way to supplanting the corner drug as the gathering spot of our culture.
No name says "small town" like Corner Drug. No name evokes memories of soda fountains and Saturday afternoons like Corner Drug.
Corner Drug is where Grandma met Grandpa, where Mom bought her first home permanent and Dad his first rubber (that's condom, to you kids). It was once a staple of every downtown, the place where mothers met in the morning to gossip, where businessmen lunched and cut deals, where teenagers crowded in after school for a soda and a smile.
My godmother, who got married in 1934, celebrated with a wedding dinner at the soda fountain of Bunting's Drugs in Bristol, Virginia. "We got three hot dogs for a dime. He ate two and I ate one."
But downtown corners have lost their luster, replaced by malls, and Corner Drug stores have been snapped up by Rite-Aid and Revco, who may give the old Corner Drugs a big-time name, but they rob the places of their identities.
There are only seventy-one drugstores named Corner Drug remaining, according to my search of business phone directory listings. There's no way of knowing how many there once were, but every town had one.
A few of the remaining Corner Drugs have moved away from the corner to a strip center, retaining their old name if not their old location. But most have held on to that coveted downtown corner, even as downtown has changed. As the owner of Corner Drugs in Llano, Texas, put it, "We've been here forever."
I surveyed the surviving members of the Corner Drug fraternity to find out how they've changed and how they've remained the same.
Of the seventy-one drug stores named Corner Drug, fifty-one agreed to answer a few questions. (Isn't it good to know that fully 28 percent of all Corner Drug store owners are suspicious of someone who calls on the phone claiming to be writing a book about drugstores?)
Changing times and changing fashions have hurt the soda fountain business. In 1948, 60 percent of America's drugstores had working soda fountains, according to that year's edition of Remington's Practice of Pharmacy. Only 20 percent of today's Corner Drugs -- ten stores -- have soda fountains. And only four of those ten serve lunch. One serves ice cream only; the others offer fountain service. In a nod to modern times, two other Corner Drug stores have coffee bars. Photo finishing, a drugstore staple for a century, has fared better: 70 percent of Corner Drugs still offer that old drug store standby.
The day of the family-owned pharmacy isn't over either. But the big corporations have made an attempt to corner the Corner Drug market -- they now own 40 percent of the drugstores I surveyed.
How old are Corner Drugs? They are as old as God and as new as Zantac 75. Corner Drug in Sigourney, Iowa, was founded in 1875, the year before Rutherford B. Hayes was voted into office. (The state was only twenty-nine years old at the time.) One encouraging sign about the future of Corner Drugs is that they are still being built in the nineties. Corner Drug of Buffalo, Missouri, opened in 1991, and the Corner Drug Store at 451 Third Avenue in New York City opened in 1992. The average age of these Corner Drugs is sixty-seven (founded in 1930). If you're into math, the median age is sixty-nine.
Most Corner Drug stores are legitimate corner drugstores, located on the corner of two intersecting streets in the downtown area. But one -- Corner Drug of Durant, Oklahoma -- is located "in" a corner. Three used to be on corners, but have moved. Corner Drug in Lake City, Tennessee, used to be on the corner, but other businesses in the east Tennessee town have built up around it and now it is in the middle of the block.
Corner Drug of Cattaraugus, New York, is on a dangerous corner by a steep hill, and the store has been hit by cars several times. One druggist -- that guy at Corner Drug in Llano, Texas -- felt compelled to tell us that his store had only been on a corner for ninety-nine years. It didn't move to the corner until 1898, five years after the store's founding. The Corner Drug in Driggs, Idaho, gets our nod as best source for one-stop shopping: It's called Corner Drug & Hardware.
Whether the store is an old-timer or a newborn, the folks at Corner Drug have some stories to tell. That's because in most places the local pharmacist is much more approachable than the doctor. He'll even pick up the phone.
At Corner Drug in Columbus, Texas, they still laugh about the woman who thought "free delivery" meant that she didn't have to pay when they delivered it to her house.
A woman called Corner Drug in Lander, Wyoming, panicked that her children had cooked her birth control pills in the toaster. She said they were a little brown and wondered if they were still good. (They were.)
The ladies at Corner Drug in Bethany, Missouri, were taken aback the day an old guy forgot he was in public and dropped his pants right there in the store so he could tuck in his shirt.
It's been thirty years, but they still chuckle about the lady who called Corner Drug Store in Blacksburg, Virginia, to inform the pharmacist that she had taken her medicine and chased it with wine, apparently making it explode in her stomach, causing smoke to come out of her mouth. She was not hurt, she explained, but she just wanted them to know.
Corner Drug Store in Glenwood, Minnesota, is in Garrison Keillor country, so they should have known better when the Norwegian fellow asked for a "urinal." They finally figured out what he was saying -- he wanted a "Journal," a Milwaukee Journal. Pharmacists at that store still go the extra mile. One night, the pharmacist got a panicked call at home from a man with a screaming baby in the background. He drove ten miles on his snowmobile in a BLIZZARD only to find that the guy who called just wanted to buy a pacifier.
There was a shoot-out in 1932 in the Corner Drug Store of Madill, Oklahoma. The sheriff and a deputy shot and killed each other. Folks there today like to note that both men were "peace" officers.
A robbery at Corner Drug Store in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in 1995 turned comical when the pharmacist, who had just been held up, ran out of the front of the store to see which way the robber was headed. He saw the thief pedaling down the street on a bicycle. The pharmacist jumped in his car and chased the guy while calling the police on his cellular phone. The robber was soon apprehended.
The regulars at Corner Drug Store in Seal Beach, California, were worried about the impending arrival of the comet Kahoutek back in the seventies, so when the store's front window suddenly shattered on the day the comet was to pass by, everyone was petrified. It turned out that it was an old lady who thought her car was in reverse and crashed into the store.
Every pharmacist, it seems, has a story about an ignorant customer. At the Corner Drug Store in Bridgeton, Missouri, they have two such stories. In one, a lady calls to complain that her child's medication is making his ear red. It turns out that the prescription was for an oral liquid and she was pouring it directly into the kid's infected ear. In the other story someone calls the pharmacy complaining that his suppository is a little "rough" going in. The pharmacist asks, "Did you remove the foil?" to which the customer replies, "You're supposed to remove the foil?"
My favorite Corner Drug story was told to me by a Mississippi druggist. It seems the ballplayer Dizzy Dean was a regular at his store. On this particular steamy south Mississippi day, Ol' Diz limped in and asked the clerk for jock itch powder. "Sir, could you walk this way?" the clerk asked, leading him to the proper aisle, to which Diz replied, "If I could walk that way, I wouldn't need the powder."
The Corner Drug Store in Pickens, South Carolina, claims to be America's only haunted drugstore. Numerous times, people in the back bathroom have heard someone walk by with heavy shoes, but when they check, no one is there. The owner thinks the ghost may have come from an old house that was there before the drugstore. He has checked pipes and other possible sources of the noise and found no other causes. So he has come to accept that it's a ghost. Maybe it's the ghost of Miss Ellie, the friendly pharmacist of The Andy Griffith Show. Pickens is down there not far from Mayberry territory.
One of the most amazing corner drugstore stories comes from F. E. Robinson's Drug Store in Dayton, Tennessee. It was a gorgeous spring day in 1925 -- the dogwoods were in bloom and the robins were in song -- when a few of the regulars gathered by the soda fountain at Robinson's. It was the usual chatter: a little politics, a little gossip, a little hashing over the dispatches in the newspaper. One of the regulars was George Rappelyea, who did as much hanging out as he did working, due to his depleted economic situation. He was in the process of closing down his father-in-law's bankrupt coal mine.
One dispatch in the Chattanooga Daily Times caught Rappelyea's eye. The Tennessee state legislature had passed a law, the Butler Act, that forbade the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union was appalled at this new challenge to academic freedom, and a spokesperson from the New York office told the Daily Times that it was ready to fund a challenge to the law. That piqued Rappelyea's interest. A big trial like that might just be what sleepy little Dayton needed. Think of all the attention the town would get, all the folks who would crowd in.
Rappelyea mentioned his idea to his Coke-swigging buddies Walter White, the superintendent of Rhea County Schools, and Sue Hicks, a gentleman lawyer with an unlikely first name. Druggist Frank Robinson, who was also the town's leading textbook merchant, wandered over and offered his support of the idea. Hicks was interested. Only White, who would bear the brunt of any courtroom action, was hesitant. Rappelyea turned it into a bet: "As it is, the law is not enforced. If you win, it will be enforced. If I win, the law will be repealed." White couldn't resist a sporting proposition. And so the most famous trial of the twentieth century (ask your history professor) was born: The Scopes monkey trial didn't begin in a classroom. It began in a drugstore.
Only after Rappelyea and his soda fountain buddies had settled on a plan did they find a victim -- John Thomas Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old football coach and science teacher. In all likelihood Scopes never taught a sentence of evolutionary theory to Dayton High School students. He taught biology for only two weeks, filling in for the ailing regular teacher. When questioned that day in May 1925, he wasn't sure what he had covered in his ten days of teaching biology: "We reviewed for final exams, as best I remember." But his name is in the history books, and the name F. E. Robinson's Drug Store should be there alongside it.
The Scopes monkey trial isn't the only thing to have started in a drugstore over the years; there's also Lana Turner's career, more than a few romances, and even this book.
Let's take a look at Simon's Prospect Apothecary in Prospect, Kentucky. My drugstore.
Last time I was in, pharmacist Alan Simon was doling pills into a prescription bottle without looking at the prescription, without looking at the big bottle of pills he got off the shelf and only glancing at the measuring slate or the pill bottle with the little safety cap that he was filling. He was talking the entire time about a court battle our city has been waging against a developer who wants to build a giant shopping center with a super grocery store, five restaurants and assorted other modern franchise marvels. Prospect won the latest round in what is now an eight-year battle. "Oh, he'll appeal," Simon said nonchalantly. "And he'll probably win the next round. Circuit court has never been friendly to us."
You'd think Simon was the mayor of Prospect if you just stood around listening. He isn't, but he might as well be. There isn't anything that happens in town that he doesn't know about: the break-in at the restaurant, the fatality on the bypass, or even the Charles Manson look-alike who has been wandering the streets of town for the last two days. "He's harmless. I admit, he'd spook me if I was out alone at night. But he's a friendly fellow, some LSD burnout from up in Michigan who somehow hitchhiked his way south and landed here. They'll probably put him on the bus home tomorrow."
By all rights, Simon's Apothecary should have gone under years ago. It sits in the shadow of a giant Rite-Aid chain drugstore that stays open twenty-four hours. Where Rite-Aid stocks eighty-seven varieties of painkillers, from Doan's Pills to Stanback Pain Relief Powders to the standard garden varieties of Tylenol, Bayer, Advil and Anacin, Simon's carries a few bottles of Tylenol and a few bottles of Bayer. That's bottles, not varieties.
Simon doesn't sell choice. He doesn't compete on price or selection. He sells service and himself.
He's the town druggist and Simon's Apothecary is the corner drugstore, even if it's not on a corner. Folks in Prospect couldn't even tell you the name of the druggist at Rite-Aid. "It's some college kid they hired right off the graduation platform," jokes Simon. "He'll be here ten months and then off to seek his fortune. 'Cause it's for sure he's not going to get it from Rite-Aid."
Pills and politics are serious business for Simon. It's more than Prospect that's fighting the developer. Simon himself has been slapped with a so-called SLAP suit -- Slander and Libel Against Plaintiff -- charging that he has violated the developer's civil rights. "I had to hire a lawyer, but my insurance will cover it. It's just intimidation. He doesn't like the idea of some guy in a corner drug telling people what he's trying to do."
But much as I like Alan and much as I like sitting in his store soaking it all in, it's not a daily stop on my agenda. Drugstores just aren't the integral part of our lives they once were. Oh, they are still important places. The average family visits the drugstore sixteen times a year, more than once a month. That pales next to the grocery store, where Americans shop eighty-six times a year, but it's not far behind mass merchants. The average American visits the Wal-Mart or one of its competitors more than twenty-eight times a year.
The prime customers at drugstores, as you might suspect, are older folks. Retirees generate 39.5 percent of a drugstore's business.
Drugstores' main competitors are the supermarkets and the discount stores, and in many areas, the drugstores have lost out. But they are still the market of choice for twenty-nine major items, including cosmetics, cold and sinus tablets, hair coloring, hand and body lotion, laxatives, suntan products, nasal spray and contraceptives.
The number-one product in the drugstore is...drum roll...Tylenol, with $329.4 million in drugstore sales in 1995. Revlon cosmetics are second with $254.8 million. Third place goes to Cover Girl cosmetics with $193.7 million. Maybelline cosmetics rank fourth with $175.1 million in sales.
I've been fascinated by drugstores since my elbow made it into the high school yearbook. That's what this book is about: The drugstore in all its many incarnations, pharmacy and apothecary, drugstore and general store, prescription center and community center, soda fountain and social hub. It's a book about what's inside the corner drug, from the products to the people.
And it's about that time when the drugstore was the most important store in town. Because for many towns, it still is.
At the turn of the century, the old general store used to advertise that it could take care of you from "cradle to grave." They sold cradles and they sold caskets. By the time of my youth, the 1950s and '60s, general stores were gone. Drugstores had taken over many of their functions. And if the drugstore couldn't actually do the cradle-to-grave bit (I've never seen a casket in a drugstore, and I'm sure it would frighten off a goodly portion of the clientele), the drugstore could handle all your needs from head to toe. Aspirin for the headache, powder for foot itch; Pepto-Bismol for an upset stomach, a soda fountain burger for an empty one.
And that's how this book is organized, to take you through the drugstore, to examine all the products you use from head to toe. The drugstore even has something for that elbow of mine. But first let's take a look at the history of the drugstore.
Copyright © 1998 by Vince Staten
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