Column – Going to the drugstore was once a pleasant experience
Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Standing in line in the drugstore these days gives you plenty of time to think, especially if you’re tired of scrolling through your phone messages and forgot to bring a book to read. (I’ve even thought about bringing a lawn chair, but figure that would just be tacky.)
During a recent wait, my memory drifted back to the days — not really that long ago — when there were still locally owned drugstores in Smithfield. Places you could call and expect a person rather than a long-winded and often unintelligible computerized message to pick up the phone on the other end.
We had a locally owned drugstore on Main Street until just over a decade ago. Simpson’s Pharmacy was a century-old institution, modeled after downtown drugstores across the nation. Danny and Judy Walls were the last owners of Simpson’s. They purchased it in 2007 from Delores Cahoon, who, with her late husband, Aubrey, had owned it for decades after buying it from the founding families of Simpsons and Watts.
Until 1976, there had been two pharmacies on Main Street. The other one, Little’s Pharmacy, occupied a building across the street from Simpson’s. It was the earliest of the two, founded in 1896 as Parish Drug Store and sold to druggist Vance Little in 1943. Mr. Little, in turn, sold the business to Village Drugs of Chuckatuck in 1973 and it did business as a Village Drug until it closed its doors three years later, in 1976.
Simpson’s and, I suspect to some degree, Little’s, fell victim to modernization of the pharmaceutical business. Mr. and Mrs. Walls were candid about the ultimate closing of Simpson’s. In an interview with The Smithfield Times, they said Smithfield Foods had ordered its employees to use only mail order for prescription drugs. That decision dramatically cut Simpson’s revenue, and other large companies were going the same way.
At one time, Simpson’s and Little’s both had soda fountains and tiny tables and metal-framed chairs that offered a welcome place to wait while the druggist, whom you knew by name, filled a prescription. A limeade or Coca Cola, together with chats among neighbors, turned waiting into a pleasant event.
Little’s had a lunch counter where you could order a ham sandwich, grilled cheese or hotdog. That lunch counter had the dubious distinction of inviting one of Smithfield’s relatively few civil rights confrontations. Local barber Fred Wrenn entered Little’s and sat to order lunch. He was turned away, and left, but the point had been made. Not many years later, Little’s and other eateries were quietly integrated as they should have been decades earlier.
Little’s tiny dining area was a daily gathering place for the women of Smithfield. It became so iconic that when a Colonial Williamsburg film crew came to town in the 1950s to film a town that might have looked like Williamsburg prior to its renaissance, they photographed the ladies at a Little’s table. Of course, the ladies dressed to the nines for the occasion.
The lunch counter, no longer paying its way, was closed in 1973, three years before the drugstore’s doors were locked for good.
Today, the former Simpson’s building is home to Pearl’s Boutique, and the Little’s building houses the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Cafe.
Drugstores were only one of the services available on Main Streets of yesteryear, including Smithfield’s. There were banks, hardware stores, car dealerships, restaurants and department stores. Some of those businesses began leaving downtown in the early 1970s, trying to capture customers by offering large parking lots and modern stores or a shopping center setting. Those moves turned out to be transitory, as most of the downtown businesses that moved have since closed or been bought out by chains.
Downtown is still a great place to visit, but you can’t fill a prescription there. For that matter, good luck trying to fill them anywhere else today.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.