The Drugstore: Boomer-Age General Store

For a good many Baby Boomers like Mister Boomer, the neighborhood drugstore was more than a pharmacy where prescriptions were filled. For one thing, perhaps the biggest feature of boomer-age drugstores was the soda fountain. Working an expanse of stainless steel counters and cabinets, soda jerks prepared milk shakes, ice cream sodas, sundaes and banana splits for boomers and their parents.

Seasonal merchandise was always available, whether it was summer beach accessories, Easter baskets and candy, Halloween costumes and candy, Christmas lights and tinsel or Mother’s Day perfume sets. Most also carried greeting cards and were the drop-off point for exposed camera film. Others still carried replacement tubes for TVs. All this was in addition to over-the-counter medication, lotions and toiletries.

By the late 1970s, the drugstore frequented by Mister Boomer’s family was gone, replaced by a family restaurant. Yet even though it has been nearly 50 years since he set foot in the store, Mister Boomer recalls its functions and merchandise in great detail.

The store, about a half mile from Mister B’s house, was situated next to a gas station, which gave it the feel of a corner store since the front entrance was angled toward the gas station lot. There was a parking lot behind it, and a back door to enter the store. This drugstore was part of the Rexall franchise; Mister Boomer recalls the sign in its distinctive navy blue and orange colors on the side of the building which faced the gas station.

The Rexall drugstore story began in 1902 when Louis K. Liggett gathered independent drugstores into a cooperative that sold products under the Rexall brand. Individual franchises appeared after World War I. The beauty of the Rexall business model was that each drugstore remained independently owned and operated by local pharmacists.

The company gained national exposure in the 1940s and ’50s through its sponsorship of well-known radio programs such as Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Jimmy Durante Show. By 1958, the Rexall chain of drugstores reached its peak. Hosting more than 11,000 locations — mostly in rural and suburban areas — the Rexall Drug Company was the largest drugstore franchise in the country.

Entering Mister Boomer’s Rexall from the parking lot back door, racks of greeting cards occupied the left-side wall of the entry passage. This gave way to the soda fountain on the left, and store became wider, with the pharmacy occupying the right-hand corner. The fountain had a Formica counter with circular stools fixed to the floor via a metal, chromed pole. The seats were made of red vinyl, and were cushioned when you sat on them. Sitting there, twisting and spinning at the counter, Mister B and his siblings or friends could watch the soda jerk make their order.

It was at this counter that Mister B had his first banana split, an extravagance for his family. Struck with tonsillitis at the age of six, Mister Boomer’s father took him to the hospital to have his tonsils removed. En route he told him when it was over, he’d get Mister B a banana split. A few days later, he made good on his promise. A sore-throated Mister Boomer watched as the soda jerk placed horizontal slices of banana into the rectangular glass dish. Next he scooped and arranged chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream into a row and squirted whipped cream over each ice cream scoop. A dusting of walnuts, a drizzle of hot fudge and a Maraschino cherry on top in the middle completed the masterpiece. Mister B wasn’t sure he could finish it all — it was quite a challenge for a six year old — but he wanted his father to know he appreciated the gesture and muddled through with great aplomb.

Beyond the soda fountain was the cash register, which was situated near the front door. It was here that you could drop film off for developing and pick up your prints and developed negatives in about a week to 10 days. Film developing was usually accompanied by a free roll of whatever film type you brought in.

Directly across from the soda fountain and cashier the seasonal merchandise was featured. On the other side of the aisle were the small toys — including kites, string, and balsa wood airplanes — and, of greatest interest to Mister Boomer, the model kits. His drugstore was the top place where he could buy World War II boat and plane kits, hot rod model kits and new-model car kits. most importantly, the store stocked a complete selection of Testors paint to give his assembled models the final touch.

Between the aisles was the TV vacuum tube testing machine. It was a self-service unit that had an angled top that contained sockets for every type of TV vacuum tube. Mister Boomer watched many times as his father brought a tube from home, plugged it into the matching slot and flicked the test switch. If the tube didn’t glow, it was time for a replacement. The cabinet below had a door on it where the replacement tubes were kept.

For Mister Boomer and many other boomers like him, the drugstore was the general store of the era. It was an important stop for the family: a place to pick up prescriptions and medications, to be sure, but also last-minute wedding, birthday or graduation cards, new toys and model kits, to get film developed and TV tubes replaced, and pause for a minute with a soda fountain treat.

Did you have a similar drugstore in your area, boomers?