Requiem for Corner Drugstores

Reading a book of interviews with the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. While I find his novels largely unreadable, especially his cut-up experiments of the 1960s, his interviews are often full of interesting observations and insights. For example, this passage from a 1979-1980 New Years Eve discussion in New York City:William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart

I’m well known in the drug store…. They always have anything I want. I wanted to buy a special kind of glue. You wouldn’t think you’d buy it in a drugstore, but they had it: Duco cement. They have a special kind of ball-point pen that only costs 59 cents, the only kind I use; they have stationery; it’s one of those drug-stores that does everything. And his wife is very much of a theatrical Spanish Dolores type, fairly good looking, a middle-aged woman who’s had a lot of sorrow but has dignity and a great presence. She says, ‘Oh, why didn’t you say the usual, Mr. Burroughs?’ Her husband was much older than she was…. He died shortly after that and I never saw him again…. A new pharmacist appeared and what the relation between him and her is at this point I don’t know. He knows everyone in the neighborhood. For example he’ll advise someone: ‘You need glasses. You’re entitled to them on your social security.’ He’s always instructing someone, telling them to do this or that…. It’s also a news exchange. There’d been a mugging and there was a report. Some woman got beaten up and she’s at the counter and they’re all commiserating and saying ‘two black boys.’ And the Patrone, grandiose and sad in a Latin way, experienced woman said, ‘Yes, those are the ones, those are the ones …’

I could easily envision this little pharmacy, because America used to be full of them. In the introduction to my book Paradise Theater, I mentioned Van’s Grocery in West Allis, which also had Van’s Pharmacy located on the other side of the parking lot. They had everything. Whenever we had to go there to fill a prescription, say for Amoxicillin – which I always loved the taste of, and my mom would have to stop me from consuming more than the regular dose – I would try to finagle an extra treat from among the aisles.

There was the toy aisle, with its assortment of toy guns, action figures, and other goodies for backyard playtime. The best thing I ever got from there was a slingshot – yes, those used to be in the toy department, not the adults-only, handle-with-extreme-caution sporting goods store – which mysteriously disappeared from my toy box after I had taken some pot shots at birds and squirrels, which thankfully missed.

Then there were the non-obvious treats, like the eye patch, which was sold for people who really needed one because of eye surgery or whatnot, but which I wanted because, of course, eye patches are just cool and make you look like a pirate or a criminal or something.

Van’s Pharmacy also had a small selection of VHS movie rentals, as many local drug stores and other small businesses did in those days. I can still remember the frightening cover images from 80s horror classics like Silent Night Deadly Night, Basket Case, and the Friday the 13th series, facing out on the shelves, looking out at the stationery aisle across from them.

Van’s closed down for good sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. First the grocery store gave way to the mega Pick N Save store down the road, and then the pharmacy closed a few years later.

At the same time I was going to Van’s as a kid, people in Milwaukee – the BIG CITY compared to Stallis – were going to Oriental Drugs on Farwell Avenue. The Oriental had a large lunch counter that stretched around the front of the building, and was a favorite hangout spot for all different types of people at all different times of day and night. The Violent Femmes supposedly were discovered while busking outside the place. I went there a few times in the late 80s when my father was dating an East Side girl who lived on Prospect Avenue.

Oriental Drugs closed in 1995. But fear not, there is a big Walgreens not far from there now. And another one further up the road. And more of them scattered all over town, and in virtually every other American town. Nowadays when I go home to visit my family, no matter where we are, we can always find a Walgreens nearby. They don’t have videos, but have those red dvd box rental things, at least for now, while some people still aren’t streaming absolutely everything. They probably have eye patches somewhere. But they don’t have a lunch counter like the Oriental had, and they sure as hell don’t have slingshots in the toy aisle.

The dull homogeneity of every single Walgreens I’ve ever been to makes me weep for the old days, when neighborhoods had unique corner drugstores, because they had unique characteristics … because they were real neighborhoods.

McAllister’s Pharmacy. Downtown West Allis, 1971. Photo credit: Milwaukee Public Library
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