Mourned disappearance of your corner drugstore

JACQUES KELLY

January 04, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Of all the neighborhood gathering spots that hav disappeared in the last 25 years, the demise of the corner drugstore is the most painful.

Every neighborhood had its place where you might keep tabs on community chitchat, learn first of all separations and divorces, // observe who was buying too many pints of Kentucky Gentleman, linger over a lemon phosphate, play a game of pinball or buy a tube of Pepsodent.

It seemed that every citizen of Baltimore had a strong personal allegiance to a neighborhood drugstore and its thriving soda fountain.

Its lure could be comic books or cheap novels sold at revolving metal stands. There was no better lunch than a chocolate milkshake (made to the customer's specifications -- ice, no ice, flavor combinations) and a package of cheese crackers. People waited for counter stools or booths to free up. A seat in a busy neighborhood drugstore provided a window on the world.

Fountain-made Coca-Cola was decidedly better than anything in bottle. Each drugstore chocolate soda or sundae always bore the personality of its maker. Some clerks gave a light, stinting dip. Others packed the plate generously with Hendler's ice cream.

There were definite peaks and lulls throughout the day. The morning might be quiet, then come 11:30 the store would fill up with the crowd whose lunch might be an egg salad sandwich and chocolate Coke.

In addition to its listening-post role as the corner gossip center, the drugstore sold real news. Just before lunch time the first editions of The Evening Sun and the old News-Post would have been delivered to its paper counter, generally alongside the cigars and cigarettes.

A constant cycle of newspaper delivery would continue throughout the day, until the final editions of the afternoon papers arrived around supper time. People who wanted the Wall Street closing stock prices and the illegal number bought this edition.

The bulldog edition of The Sun -- the edition of the next day's morning paper, printed the night before -- drew a night owl crowd.

Fear of crime just didn't exist when many of Baltimore's streets were lighted by gas. Other stores had closed by 9 p.m., but not necessarily the drugstore. It stayed open and often had a flush of business as customers' appetites rekindled about four hours after dinner.

The thought of an ice cream cone or a chance to get out of the house summoned people to the corner Katz's or Kriger's.

The state's largest chain of drugstores belonged to the old Read Drug and Chemical Co. There were once "Run Right to Read's" signs from Ellicott City to Pocomoke City, with a saturation in Baltimore, both downtown and in the neighborhoods.

There was a time when the Read's neon glowed on practically every intersection of busy Lexington Street downtown -- at Charles, at Liberty, at Howard and at Eutaw.

This operation was efficient, cut-rate and impersonal.

In the 1930s and '40s, its biggest local competitor was People's Drugs, but most Baltimoreans remained loyal to smaller operations, places such as Wagner & Wagner, Morrison & Fifer, Voshell's, Shure's, the Avalon, the Guilford Pharmacy, Lambros', Lipsky's, Spetzler's, Thomas & Thompson, Rosenberg's, Kinnamon & Briele, Carl Flom's and Andrew Heck, to recount a few.

They were typically on corners served by streetcar lines. By today's standards, the shops were small; occasionally they'd be in basements. The size added to their intimacy.

Here you'd be recognized on sight. Many a neighborhood doctor, as Baltimoreans always called their pharmacists, made on-the-spot diagnoses. They pampered customers through their pregnancies, coughs and hangovers.

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