Friday, April 28, 2006

The Old Time Neighborhood Drug Stores

The term "Drug Store" has just about faded from the American lexicon, at least when it comes to South Philly. Today most people will mention CVS, Rite Aid, or Walgreens to name a few chains when asked where they get their prescriptions filled. But those places aren't the "Drug Stores" we remember growing up pre-1980s. Nope, those stores were neighborhood corner operations run by people who had a stake in the neighborhood.

If you remember the old time drug stores before the explosion of prescription medications that can do everything from keeping your legs from shaking to putting a thin rug of hair on your head, you'll know that the druggist had a small arsenal of medications on his shelf behind the counter. He didn't operate in a world where the medications your doctor prescribes may be dictated more by the incentives offered by the drug company reps than your true needs. You were the person who mattered most.

There were a ton of drug stores in the neighborhood until the late 80s, and the advent of the chains were the signal for their demise. If you lived here in the 17th & Oregon vicinity, you remember Gallegher's at 17th & Shunk, Overbeck's at Broad & Shunk, Max's at 16th & Oregon (where City Pizza now sits), Packer Park Pharmacy, Nichols at Broad & Jackson, and a few others. All of them are gone, but older folks will remember them all. It was always known that Nichols had the best prices on prescriptions, those being the days before you had drug coverage as part of your benefits, most folks paid cash.

And what could you find in those stores? They were pretty much bare-boned compared to the super-stores of the chains. You'd find mainly healthcare needs, along with a few candies, magazines, and a small list of sundry items. Now, you can get a full array of Easter or Halloween candy at the same time you buy your toothpaste, or all your Christmas stocking stuffer needs while you pick up something to help you over the hangover of the pre-holiday party at the office. Almost all of the old stores had the old scales where you could weigh yourself for a nickle. And in many cases the pharmacist knew your name.

A few stores that kept the old model of drug store do exist still. Broad St Apothecary in the 2400 block of South Broad is one of them. The store that used to be Vitale's at 10th & Oregon is another. I know there are a few more, but they're mostly gone, the small-time guy brought down by the big chains.

Well, the old stores may be gone, but there are still good things found in the big stores today. With all the meds I take, there's bound to be some issues about getting them or questions about how to take them. I go to the Rite Aid at 15th & Moyamensing, the ladies and gents there are always helpful, even to an extreme. An experience last week proved this, where one outstanding lady helped me find a prescription that I needed immediately at another store. I spent a full afternoon tracking it down with no success, but she got me what I needed with a quick phone call, and said she'd make sure it was in stock for future months. Big points were scored with me that day.

...Overbeck's Drug Store at Broad & Porter. Yes, they filled prescriptions, but I think I remember this store more for the gaggle of old men who sat around the counter talking all day.

...Nichols at Broad & Jackson. There's a Rita's Water Ice there now. But Nichols always had what you needed when bringing in your prescription, and had good prices too.

...Max's at 16th & Oregon. Max was a big guy, and very friendly. He lived in the back of the shop, and was always ready to fill your prescription. These were the days before you needed to jump through hoops to get painkillers. I remember my mom had me go there a few times to get Paragoric, which is a morphine or opiate-based drug when she had stomach problems. Max would ask if she had a script, and when she didn't, he'd still fill it and ask that she get one from the doctor to account for it. You can't do that today. Max died in the mid-70s of a heart attack, a sad loss for the neighborhood.

...Packer Park Pharmacy. This store was a bit far from home to get prescriptions filled. Most of those I hung with only knew this store because they had magazines that you couldn't find anywhere else in the neighborhood, along with a variety store at 16th & Pollock (which was simply known as the Magazine Store). And some of those characters had sticky fingers when it came to getting a copy of Rock Scene or Hit Parader magazine. No one ever got caught, and hopefully those who did those youthful indiscretions had regretted them.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Well, re-reading my post here about drug stores, I realize that it's outdated in one way: Regarding the old-style drug stores, I said, "The store that used to be Vitale's at 10th & Oregon is another." It ain't so. That store is now a mini-Walgreen's, so the chains have taken away another of the neighborhood pharmacies. Driving down the neighborhood streets, I see another at 2nd and Porter is gone too! There are very few left, and now the big plans like Medco and such are killing them off too.

Besides Broad St. Apothecary, very few survive. Silverman's at 7th and Porter comes to mind, along with Rosica at 20th & Snyder, 9th St. Pharmacy at (where else) 9th & Ritner), Bertolino's on 12th, and the long-time Zevin's at 8th & McKean. That may seem like a fair number, but given the area in the 19145 and 48 zip codes, that's a small group of independents. I see a number of PhilaRx shops sprouting up on South Broad, but even though their small, alas, it's still a chain.