Once in a while, the men who walked into the old McDougall's Pharmacy in Sykesville during the late 1960s would decline an offer of help from 13-year-old Mark McDougall.
Mark grew up in his father's drug store before becoming a pharmacist himself and knew about even the most discreet inventory.
"I'd say, 'Can I help you?' and they'd say, 'No, I'd like to talk to the older man over there.' I knew what they wanted," McDougall said.
They wanted condoms, but didn't figure it was proper to ask a 13-year-old for them.
"When I was a kid, they were kept behind the counter, in a plain bag," McDougall said.
Now 36 and a partner, McDougall keeps the condoms in the appropriate aisle, so customers can avoid the embarrassment of asking for them. Condoms and other methods of birth control sit between hair care and feminine hygiene products.
When McDougall made the change 10 years ago, he said, other stores already had done so. But his father, Bernard, now semi-retired, didn't like it, mainly because he believed that making condoms available to younger people would encourage them to have sex, the younger McDougall said.
"Kids are going to do pretty much what they want to," McDougall said. "Right or wrong, it's not really my place to judge. But let them be as safe as possible."
He has seen people as young as 12 or 13 buying them.
Sometimes, he said, teens have sent their younger friends or siblings in to buy condoms for them.
Some teens are so afraid of a disapproving clerk that they steal the condoms, McDougall said, although he said theft isn't a big problem in his two stores because the condom display is within the clerk's view.
Condoms are now available to anyone, of any age, who wants to avoid catching AIDS or about two dozen other sexually transmitted diseases.
In addition to drug stores, condoms are sold in some 24-hour supermarkets and given away free at the Carroll County Health Department through the "three for free" box at the building's entrance.
At McDougall's, a box of three latex condoms runs between $1.40 and $2.35, depending on the brand.
While condoms are made in an array of colors, textures and brand names, the only thing that matters for disease control is that they are latex and contain the spermicide Nonoxynol-9, said Deborah Middleton, who directs the sexually transmitted disease program for the Health Department.
Condoms made from natural membranes derived from sheep are too porous for disease control, Middleton said, although they work for contraception.
The wide array of choices can be a bit daunting to a first-time buyer.
"Some (customers) have been in when you're not paying attention to them, scouting out the situation, so to speak," McDougall said, and they come back on another day to buy the condoms.
When they come in to buy, he said, it is usually a single-purpose visit. They bring the condoms to the register without stopping to pick up so much as a roll of Certs, and leave as soon as they've paid.
To be effective, condoms must be used correctly and with the added protection of a spermicide, Middleton said.
Here is some advice from Middleton and the pamphlets given out by the Health Department:
* Nonoxynol-9, the spermicide, usually is in the form of a lubricant. However, not all lubricated condoms or lubricants contain Nonoxynol-9.
* If the condom does not contain the spermicide, you can buy the spermicide separately in foam, jelly or cream form and insert it into the condom, as well as into the vagina.
* Never use petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, or any other oil-based products as lubricants because they can damage a condom and cause it to break. Water-based lubricants such as K-Y Jelly will not harm the latex.
* Men should put on the condom before sexual contact with their partner, because diseases can be transmitted even before ejaculation.
* Follow the package directions for taking off the condom without spilling semen.
* Never use a condom more than once.