By Jack Horohoe
Did you ever notice some places just get lost in time?
Take the neighborhood drug store, for instance. Today the “drugstore” of my youth has been replaced by a 20,000-square-foot megastore where pharmaceuticals are but a small part of the overall operation. The Walgreens of this world sell everything from potato chips to popsicles. Oh yes, they still sell medicine too.
My first real job in the late '50s, between my sophomore and junior years of high school, was working in a drug store. Mr. Babcock and his son were the pharmacists. I was their only employee. Their store was on Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore. For lack of any “branding” know-how they just called it “Babcock Drugs.” Today selling drugs has a different connotation. Back then drugs meant medicine.
My job consisted of being the clerk, janitor, delivery person and inventory control specialist and all-around gopher. I was paid 75 cents per hour.
It was a simpler time.
The store had a distinctive essence about it. The smell of pipe tobacco burned almost constantly in the senior Babcock’s pipe as he filled prescriptions in the back room. That was coupled with the odor of “101” that was used to keep the wooden floors antiseptic and the unmistakable medicinal smell. That somewhat toxic combination of scents is still hard to explain to this day.
Our inventory consisted of the basic necessities of life. We offered two types of men's hair products, cream or oil. Old standards like Old Spice and Aqua Velva graced our shelves. If a gentleman had a big night in store, then he might go for the top shelf cologne ... English Leather.
For the ladies we had home permanent kits, combs and brushes, inexpensive perfume and cosmetics. You could buy a toothbrush and tooth powder or paste. We had comic books and postcards or you could buy film and have it developed. We didn't have a soda fountain and not much in the food aisle. Are candy bars and Sen-Sen considered food?
Did I mention it was a simpler time? But it was also a more genteel time, too.
For instance, feminine hygiene products were not displayed on the shelves. They were carefully wrapped in either blue or pink paper so as not to embarrass the women who purchased them. The contents of the blue and pink boxes were never mentioned.
Men would only speak to the pharmacist when requiring birth-control products, and then usually using a hand signal rather than speaking.
Service to the customer was always in the forefront. I would make deliveries to our customers in a gray 1954 Plymouth with “Babcock’s Drugs” emblazoned across the side. It didn’t matter the cost of the order – delivery was always free.
Standing around doing nothing was never possible under the stern eye of Mr. Babcock. I never had an idle moment – I was either sweeping, dusting or arranging shelves. To this day I tend to be a rather orderly person.
I knew many of the customers by name and had their pack of Chesterfield or Lucky Strike on the counter before they could even ask.
The pharmacies of today offer much more than that storefront operation of 60 years ago, and I can't help thinking that maybe we lost something along the way. That cordial, “Hello, how are ya?" – our customers knowing that they were special and weren't just another number.
I learned a lot that summer. I learned the importance of being on time. I learned to take responsibility and I even learned to make change in my head. Something of a lost art today, I think.
Looking back on those days brings a tear of nostalgia. I wonder if I can find a shoemaker's shop?
Jack Horohoe, from the Town of Tonawanda, learned early life lessons working at Babcock Drugs.