Thursday, September 15, 2011

Drug Store World

My Grandfather, V.A.L. Sr. (circa 1950)

Dear George,

In 1893 at age 18 my grandfather, V.A. Sr., emigrated from Sweden to Menominee with his parents. At first he worked in the logging camps. Then he got his pharmacy degree in 1903 from Ferris Institute in the Lower Peninsula and soon opened drug stores in Menominee and Marinette. By the time I was a teenager, my grandfather was in his mid-70’s and had pretty much retired from a successful business career. He gave his Menominee store to my Uncle Kent, who operated it as the head pharmacist, and he gave the Marinette store to our father Vic Jr., for whom it was a side business to his law practice. As the oldest grandchild, I became the first kid to work at the family drugstore at age 14, as did each of my siblings in the years to follow. My starting salary was 25 cents an hour, and I was excited each year when I got a raise of one nickel.

V.A. had built the brick Rexall drugstore building on the corner of Wells and Main St. at the southern edge of Marinette’s business district. Conant’s photo studio, where we got our high school yearbook pictures taken, was next door. Nylund’s Gift Shop, owned by the O’Hara’s next door neighbors on Green Bay, was two doors down. Tiny’s Bar, where my parents bought Jim Beam Whiskey at a discount price, was around the corner on Wells St. A local blacksmith shop was on the opposite side of Wells from Main St. The Boren Clinic, the Twin Cities’ largest medical establishment, was a half block down on Main. I’d be sent there sometimes to pick up prescriptions or deliver medications.

The Marinette Drugstore, Main and Wells (circa 1972)

The drugstore’s two main personnel were Clarence N. and my Uncle Ralph. They were both good bosses, but they were differed in personality and style. Clarence was the main pharmacist, older, with jet white hair, wire-rimmed spectacles, and a serious Midwestern demeanor. He used a mortal, pestle, and copper weights to mix prescriptions and was painstakingly careful. My uncle Ralph was a large and more affable man, full of laughs and amusing stories. He sang in a barber shop quartet which competed around the state. Ralph enjoyed chitchatting with the customers, and various neighborhood shopkeepers would come in during off-hours to shoot the breeze with Ralph about the day’s events. Highway 41 ran through Marinette into the U.P., and Ralph advised tourists about their vacation routes and itineraries. He encouraged visitors to check out the waterfront business district in downtown Menominee, then see the buffalo herd in Henes Park. He’d tell northbound travellers that Highway 41’s inland route through Menominee County to Escanaba was fastest if they were in a hurry, but M-35 along the Green Bay shore was a much more scenic and pleasant route.

My Uncle Ralph and Aunt Martha

My primary duties were to help customers find merchandise and to ring up their sales. I was good at math and preferred to add up all the purchases in my head rather than ring them up individually on the cash register. On one occasion when I totaled and rang up about 15 items, the customer questioned my mental calculations. Even though I proved to be correct to the penny, Ralph told me I would have to add up items on the cash register from then on. Rexall Aspirin and Hadacol were our medical best sellers. I learned later that Hadacol’s widespread appeal was due to its 12% alcohol content. I was put in charge of the ice cream counter at the front of the store. The neighborhood kids would beg me to make the scoops larger, and I would usually oblige them. Clarence watched over my shoulder one day, and he put the kibosh on that, showing me how to measure out a uniform (measly) scoop. To this day, I believe our ice cream sales declined as a consequence.

Evenings were slow, and I’d stand at the front tobacco counter reading a comic book or movie magazine till somebody came in. An elderly, unshaven neighborhood geezer stopped by every week to check the new magazines. He was completely infatuated with Marilyn Monroe. He wrote daily love letters to her, and he was convinced Marilyn that loved him in return and would soon be coming to Marinette to visit him. I loved Marilyn too, but I was less carried away in my fantasies.

We closed at nine, and it was my nightly job to sweep the floor throughout the store. I also checked the shelves before closing time and replaced any missing items from the stockroom in the back. Once a season we did a complete inventory, and we had to list on lined tablets the exact quantities of every item that the store carried. That boring task seemed to go on for weeks. In the winter I was responsible for shoveling the sidewalk, and my dad arranged for me to paint murals, e.g., Santa or the Easter Bunny, on the store’s front windows at holiday seasons. I made deliveries in the neighborhood on my bike, and sometimes I’d go to a competing drugstore over on Hall Ave. to pick up some medication that we needed for a customer but didn’t have in stock.

My Sister Vicki in Her Job at the Family Drugstore (circa 1960)

The most high pressure part of my job was taking a money bag filled with the previous day’s receipts a block and a half down the street to the First National Bank. I undertook the task with utter seriousness, concealing the money bag in a innocent-looking paper sack and watching for masked robbers who might try to waylay me along the way. After I’d made it successfully to the bank (which I always did), I’d continue down Main St. to get a frozen malt cone at Lauerman’s Department Store. The frozen malt machine was right up at the front counter. It was the best cone I’ve ever tasted. Though I’ve kept an eye out ever since, I’ve never run across another frozen malt vendor anywhere. After my malt cone I’d go down to Lauerman’s basement and check for any new additions to the camping gear in the Boy Scout department.

My father was attuned to health issues, and he became increasingly convinced that operating a drugstore, whose very aim was to foster well-being in the community, was incompatible with selling cigarettes and cigars. He decided to remove the tobacco counter. Uncle Ralph responded with total alarm, arguing that we got half of our customers from the personal contact that occurred when people stopped in to buy a pack of cigarettes. My dad and Ralph argued back and forth for a year or more -- the two of them taking heated, polarized positions. Eventually Ralph’s pragmatism won out, though Vic never really accepted the idea.

My Dad, V.A.L. Jr.

One day a young girl came in and spoke to Ralph at the back of the store. She was perhaps 13. I saw her hand him a note, and he shook his head after reading it. After she’d left, he told me that the note was supposedly from her mother, asking the pharmacist to sell her daughter a box of condoms that her daughter would bring home to her parents. Ralph said that he got that all the time from young girls. He felt bad about refusing contraceptives to sexually active young teens. At the same time, he was sure there would be a serious uproar if he did that and it became a matter of common knowledge in the community.

The condom drawer was in the back room where prescriptions were prepared. I was always curious and liked to look over its contents when nobody else was around. Several years later, when my brother Steven was working at the store, he thought it would be a funny practical joke if he stole a box of condoms to give away as the prize at a poker party he was hosting for his teenage male friends. He’d just put a box of Trojans in his pocket when our mother came in to the store and started talking with him and Clarence. Somehow Steve, fiddling around, managed to drop the condoms onto the floor between the three of them. My mother didn’t see it, but Clarence did, and he rapidly pushed the box behind him with his foot. Steve grabbed the box up as soon as he had a chance. Neither he nor Clarence ever spoke a word about it.

In addition to Clarence, Ralph, and I, the drug store staff included a black-haired woman named Gertie. Gertie was very outgoing, full of jokes and laughter. Her specialty was the cosmetics counter, and she was an excellent saleswoman. She and her husband owned and operated a tavern on Hall Ave., Ed and Gert’s, and she’d shift to her evening hours as a barmaid after her daytime stint at the drugstore. One day Ralph was out of town on vacation and Clarence became ill after lunch. Despite state regulations requiring that a registered pharmacist be on the premises at all times, Clarence went home, leaving Gertie in charge. Around mid-afternoon Gertie called me to the back of the store, looking pale and in a state of panic. She said that the State Inspector had just come in for his annual visit. Gertie gave me her car keys and said I should get out to Pine Beach as quickly as possible and bring back my grandfather so we would have a pharmacist in the store. She said she would stall the inspector in the meantime. Pine Beach was a couple of miles away, and I drove through town at fifty miles an hours, rushed my grandfather V.A. Sr. into the car, and raced back to the store. My grandfather, as you might imagine, was totally upset about possible sanctions from the authorities. Gertie was waiting for us at the back door, looking sheepish. The State Inspector had already finished his job and left. It turned out he wasn’t the pharmacy inspector at all – he was the plumbing inspector. So much for that dire crisis.

V.A. Sr. and I at the Drugstore (circa 1953)

Years later, when Katja and I were married, my dad would tell us that we could go over to the drugstore and pick out anything we wanted for free. We’d stock up on household supplies for the year: bandaids, mercurachrome, shoelaces, shampoo, aspirin, Tums, shaving cream, combs, everything we could think of. Katja especially loved to spend time behind the cosmetics counter, and she fully replenished her beauty supplies on each of our trips. After several years of this Ralph explained to us that it wasn’t really free, but, rather, our bill was put on my father’s tab. Even though we’d discovered it wasn’t free, that didn’t slow us down much on subsequent trips.

One summer in the early 1960’s when we came home we learned that Uncle Ralph was gravely ill. We went to visit him at his family’s Pine Beach home, and he was as cordial and welcoming as always, though he’d lost a lot of weight and his face was very pale. I vividly remember him saying that if he could have only one wish in the world it would be to go back for a day’s work at the drugstore. We said we prayed that that would happen, but we knew in our hearts it wasn’t likely. Ralph, in his forties with two teenage children, died a couple weeks later. Some time after that, Clarence retired and my dad sold the drug store to a pharmacist named Jerry. My dad didn’t lose sleep about disposing of the store since most years he’d lost money from the business. However, we were saddened by the end of a family tradition.



G-mail Comments

-Vicki L (9-16): Hi D, I really loved this piece about the drug store- maybe I'm touched not only be the memories but by how much richness lies within simple, ordinary daily living. Thanks, V

PS Where did the picture from Vic come ? - a rare find!

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