When the small-town apothecary worked magic
By Tom Poland
Remember the old drugstores? Most have faded into the night. They retreated to a place called “Obscurity” but I recall them with fondness and I feel sorry for kids today. They won’t get to sit on a red and chrome stool at a black marble counter and enjoy an old-fashion malt milkshake. Or cherry soda. Or strawberry sundae. They won’t get to watch the soda jerk mix ice cream with carbonated beverages and serve them in a fountain glass with a real spoon, not plastic. No, they’re missing one of my childhood’s joys. As a boy, I balanced needle dread against soda fountain joy. I don’t remember all the shots the great Dr. Pennington gave me, but I recall the old drugstores with reverence. My hometown doesn’t have a square, wish it did. It’s laid out like an L or a 7 and it had two vintage drugstores in my day: the downtown drug store, City Pharmacy, and the uptown drug store, Crawford & Breazeale, which in time relocated downtown. One afternoon I walked into the building Crawford & Breazeale occupied in my youth. I could see where the soda fountain stood. Its footprint was on the floor. I saw where I had sat at the counter many times and conjured up the man who made cherry Cokes. As I reached deeper into memory I recalled black-and-white tile floors — ceramic tile, not vinyl — and men with first names like Mitchell and Fortson and racks of comic books and paperback novels. Old-fashioned words came to mind. Words like “ice cream parlor,” “elixir” and “apothecary.” The apothecary dispensed prescriptions. He mixed medicinal elixirs and magical elixirs: milkshakes and cherry cokes that induced pure joy. Long ago, stepping into what would become a vintage drug store felt good. It was a hangout where you met friends but that’s not the case today. Big stores killed old drug stores. Now you go to the pharmacy at Publix or Walmart or CVS or Walgreens. Maybe Rite Aid. You can’t get milkshakes or sundaes. Just amble over to a machine and get a tepid Coke in a plastic bottle. Notice the tinge of green the fluorescent lights give your skin. All the pharmacists dress in white smocks. They’re too busty to chat. To go to a drug store today is an utterly predictable experience called boredom. Not an ounce of joy does it dispense. Yet, a ray of light shines. You can find old-fashion drug stores in Summerville, Mt. Airy, N.C., Nashville, Greenville, Foley, Ala., and Apalachicola, Fla. Once upon a time you could find two in a place called Lincolnton, Ga. Family owned, the old drug stores weren’t clones of corporation. They were original and unique. I imagine you, reader, know of an old-time drugstore somewhere. Do yourself and your children and children’s children a favor. Take a few photos of it and consider it an act of preservation. Even better, take them to it and let them see not only what a real drugstore looked like but what it felt like.