Drugstore Served Fountain Of Goodwill

March 15, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

The Bird Lady liked oatmeal cookies. Percy preferred milkshakes.

Few people knew that. Few people cared.

But at Schmitt's Rexall Drugs in downtown Westminster, compassion for Percy and the Bird Lady -- two well-known eccentrics of Main Street -- soared far beyond most stores' concern for their patrons. Workers at the drugstore embraced Percy and the Bird Lady, became their caretakers and finally, several years ago, arranged their burials.

"They were just customers we got close to," says Audrey Snyder, a drugstore clerk for 20 years.

That extraordinary goodwill is the legacy of Schmitt's, a Main Street institution, as it expands into a second location, upgrades its pharmacy and, regardless of how friendly its workers remain, changes character forever.

"Nostalgia is how I'd describe it," says Irvin "Doc" Goodman, former owner of the store for 31 years. "A tribute to nostalgia."

There's been a drugstore at 55 E. Main St. in Westminster at least 76 years, says Mr. Goodman, retired and living in Pikesville. When he bought the store in 1958 from Fred Schmitt, he found prescriptions on file dating to 1918.

And when Mr. Goodman bought the store, the price of a 6-ounce glass of Coke was a nickel. The store became known for its soda fountain and nickel Coke after newspaper stories circulated around the country.

Mr. Goodman never raised the price, and he continued selling coffee for 10 cents a cup -- right up until he sold the store in 1989. By then it was famous for another feature: kindness.

"Because Percy had an odor," Mr. Goodman says of Percy Crouse, who wore a hat and several overcoats year-round, "everybody threw him out of their store. He finally ended up in mine."

"He was shell-shocked and maybe gassed a little during the war [World War I]," says Cindy Rutzebeck, 38, assistant pharmacy technician who's worked at the store since she was 15. "We tried to make sure he always had something to eat, especially for holidays."

Percy ambled in every day, and so did the Bird Lady, Julia Hooper -- after calling Mr. Goodman every morning for the weather report. The Bird Lady strolled up and down Main Street feeding birds and irritating people.

"She got on people's nerves," says Mrs. Snyder, the 64-year-old drugstore clerk who's worked here since she was 44. "But I'm going to get old, too. That's life. You've got to be nice to people."

Mrs. Snyder and Kittie Parker, a pharmacy technician who's also worked here 20 years, watched after the Bird Lady. They delivered food to her Main Street apartment and later visited her in the nursing home. Mrs. Snyder handled her affairs when she died. Mr. Goodman took care of Percy's.

Not all customers get service to the grave, but many come in with a list, hand it to Mrs. Snyder and sip coffee while she fills their order. Customers call and ask for her, because when RTC they're out of their "red vitamin pill," she knows what they want.

"That's just the way it is around here," Mrs. Snyder says. "We're just a big family."

The family split amicably last week, some moving a few blocks west to 99 W. Main St., new site of the pharmacy, and some staying at 55 E. Main St., where a convenience store will sprout.

Dennis Rosenbloom and Forest Howell, the uncle-nephew team that bought the store from Mr. Goodman, say they want to expand and modernize -- and stay on Main Street.

Like Mr. Goodman, they chose not to abandon downtown for the mall or shopping centers on congested Route 140. Many customers live or work downtown -- such as Elizabeth S. Reese, who lives a couple of blocks away and walks to the store nearly every morning for her paper, soft drink and friends.

Mrs. Reese won't reveal her age, but says she's come into the drugstore for 60 years. As a girl she and a friend stopped in for nickel Cokes after Sunday school.

"Everybody came downtown Friday and Saturday nights," she says. "You'd walk up and down Main Street and bump into your friends. You could hardly get through because of the crowds."

And sooner or later, you ended up at Schmitt's.

"Everybody had to get a nickel Coke," Mrs. Reese says.

Mr. Rosenbloom and his nephew haven't raised the price, but they have posted a sign that says only customers who buy $5 worth of merchandise or have prescriptions filled can get a Coke for a nickel. That's to discourage loiterers, a handful of whom have generated protest from some residents.

Some residents complain that the drugstore sells liquor -- miniatures and cheap wine. Mr. Rosenbloom, one of the owners, says his workers don't sell to people who are noticeably drunk. They even limit how long a customer can sit with a cup of coffee: 15 minutes. Police officers keep the loiterers moving.

"We try to treat them with a little respect, just like everybody else," says Mrs. Rutzebeck, summing up the store's long-standing attitude. "They're human beings."

The new convenience store will continue selling liquor. And the soda fountain will remain open -- for the time being, Mr. Rosenbloom says. "We haven't really decided what to do with it," he says.

And the nickel Coke? For now, customers having prescriptions filled at the new location receive a coupon for a 5-cent Coke at the old location. Mr. Rosenbloom says he doesn't know how long that will last.

He won't come out and say it, but indicates that the days of the nickel Coke are numbered -- soon to go the way of Percy, the Bird Lady and old Schmitt's Rexall Drugs itself.

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