Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

The American Drugstore

by Julián Marías

I REMEMBER MY ARRIVAL in Salt Lake City on a long shining train which had just crossed the endless plains of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and now had entered the land of the Mormons. When I got off the train and began to walk down the long avenue, now slick with ice, which stretches from the station to the Mormon Temple, I asked myself what I had lost in Utah, in this place where I didn’t even know the name of a single person. Undoubtedly the blame was this time – as in so many other cases – Jules Verne’s. Do you remember his Around the World in Eighty Days? Phineas Fogg, the phlegmatic gentleman, and his roguish servant Passepartout; in their company I came to know Utah and its Mormons for the first time, in my early youth. But let’s not deceive ourselves: youth somehow remains with us; I had a date with Salt Lake City from the age of ten, and now I was keeping it, walking slowly through the snow along a deserted street, toward the Mormon Temple, which glowed in the distance, and which can only be entered by the faithful.

This enormous temple, brightly lighted, seemed to orient and give meaning to the city. Very close by, the mountains, which surround the city and are visible on all sides, creating in its midst the image of a wild West. Frozen and almost deserted streets. And suddenly, the drugstore! There, in Salt Lake City, I finally understood its meaning. Always open, day and night, in any weather, brilliantly lit up like a beacon in the middle of the night, sheltering and hospitable like a port, full of things … like a drugstore, for in no other place are there so many things. Twenty-five-cent books on revolving wire stands; children’s records; magazines and newspaper; cigarettes, cameras, candies, luggage, electrical appliances, chairs, pens, toys, glasses, perfumes, stationery fishing tackle … anything you can think of. Since it has everything, there are even drugs and prescriptions in the American drugstore. And there is, strangely enough, a large counter, lined with plastic-covered stools, where one can order, at any hour of the day or night, and for a few cents, a couple of eggs, a cup of coffee, a milk shake, a hamburger, or what they call, with wonderful inventiveness, a cheeseburger.

If you want to buy something in the United States, don’t give it a second thought. An alarm clock? Don’t look for a watchmaker, because you may not find one, or he may not sell alarm clocks. Go to the corner drugstore. Do you need a pipe, a roll of film, a hot plate, a life preserver, some stamps, a bath sponge, a toaster, an atlas, a filet of salmon, an aspirin, chocolate or strawberry ice cream, a coonskin cap? Do you want to call Miami, Chicago, Columbus, the most remote town in Minnesota or in Arizona? Walk confidently into the drugstore. Do you want to thaw out and warm your ears? Do you want to breathe cool air when outside heat has melted the asphalt? The drugstore makes life livable again.

And, above all, if you need company, if you feel alone, estranged, and detached from everything, if it seems to you that there is no one left in the world, that humanity has disappeared from around you, you will find it again in the drugstore. It is always the same, always identical; it is yours. You will find it in Niagara Falls, near the Canadian border; and in California, on the shores of the Pacific; in the small, intimate cities of Connecticut or Massachusetts, and on the plains of Wisconsin; in the bustle of Chicago, and very near the gardens which surround Pasadena’s millionaires. When you cross its threshold, you enter into the same socially shared world, you are “at home”. Behind the counter the same smile that you left behind in your own city awaits you. From the stools, a complex sampling of humanity looks at you benevolently: a boy and a girl who are drinking a shake and looking into each other’s eyes, while she straightens her blond hair; the nurse who pauses on her way to the hospital for a cup of hot coffee; the solitary night owl who doesn’t know where to go; the truck driver who gulps down his bacon and eggs while his gas tank is being filled; the lady who is out shopping and, surrounded by packages, eats a quick bite. Perhaps the counter is circular, or forms three sides of a square: the people face each other and smile; there is a smell of coffee; cigarette smoke curls upwards; a few words are exchanged; an old man cleans his glasses in order to see three generations more clearly.

The drugstore is a refuge, a haven for the weary, a source of diversion for the curious and contemplative, a consolation for the afflicted and lonely. In a big city, its lights beckon and call; in small, quiet towns, when everyone is asleep, it accepts the stranger who feels lost. How many charitable deeds the American drugstore performs unknowingly! It feeds the hungry, it refreshes the thirsty, at times it clothes the naked, it visits the nostalgic, it consoles the sad, it teaches the uninformed with its books and gives advice for those who need it. How many on their way to commit a crime, perhaps to murder or to take their own life, may have found a drugstore in their path and have changed their minds? In this country of statistics, one figure is lacking: the would-be suicides who had a change of heart in the drugstore and became reconciled to life. They ought to send a postcard to the census office.

The author was a Spanish philosopher and a disciple of Ortega y Gasset. For his anti-Franco views, he was banned from teaching in Spain, but the authorities did not obstruct the printing of his History of Philosophy, the sales of which provided him with a livelihood. The official disapproval of the state did not prevent him from being appointed to the Royal Spanish Academy, and he lectured at several universities in the United States, Harvard and Yale among them. He died in 2005.

The translation from Spanish is by J. Richard Andrews and Joseph H. Silverman

This post was published on Monday, June 27th, 2011 9:10 pm. It has been categorised under Journal.
28 Jun 2011 12:23 am

The good professor never went into a modern Walgreens late at night. Of all the lonely places in all the world (not just secluded, or solitary, but actually lonely), that has to take the cake. Too bad, to, given what it supplanted.

Steve M
28 Jun 2011 4:01 pm

Andrew, we need you to weigh in with your own experience. When I think of the typical drugstore, I think of one without a lunch counter where customers can eat. I know these do exist, but I think of them more in movies I have seen rather than actual stores I have encountered. Is your experience different?
The remark about murder is an awkward reflection to read for a New Yorker this week. There were four people murdered last week by a gunman who arrived at a drugsore to grab drugs. This does not, by any means, make the professor’s reflections wrong–but they are, of course, not the complete story.

B T Van Nostrand
29 Jun 2011 2:05 pm

You are all too young to understand: Marias describes something which did exist, but does no longer. The white, Protestant America which signed its own death warrant in 1964 was a place exactly as here described. That is why you can see it in films of the period. Some of us can even remember it.
But is is gone, and you will never get it back. If you want to know what has replaced it, then read the tabloids – or go to Chicago or better, Detroit, and just look around.
On second thought, better not, because you wouldn’t come back in one piece.

30 Jun 2011 2:56 am

While I have never been in a drugstore with a lunch counter, when traveling I have often been consoled by visiting a Walgreen’s. Despite what many paleocon-leaning critics of culture might think, Dr. Marias points out that the uniformity of American drugstores serves a good purpose — if nothing else, to provide refuge for the stranger. After a botched job interview in a distant town, I once burned off steam by walking/stalking the aisles of a Walgreen’s. Any given small grocery store or dry goods store might not provide this or that amenity that is sought. A Walgreen’s, however, will fill your prescription and provide a fairly predictable supply of standard American items. Many folks, enamored of local particularity, may sneer at this, but try imagining the inconvenience of life without it. As Dr. Marias points out, we should not raise our noses at the simple conveniences we take for granted. We should not raise our noses at the *institution* of the American drugstore. Thank you for posting this article!


5 Jul 2011 1:10 am

What are you doing in London, Andrew? You have not told your loyal readers, if I recall correctly.

London is a very good city for book collectors, with lots of auctions, shops, and book fairs at all levels. PBFA in Bloomsbury is a very good modest priced fair, and there used to be another bargain fair in the Royal National, just north of Russell Square.

valeria kondratiev
7 Jul 2011 10:44 pm

Lovely piece of nostalgia. I actually remeber an old pharmacy in my neighbourhood, similar except for the lunch counter. The place was owned by two identical Jewish brothers, who were fatherly friendly and reassuring. I remeber going there when I was little, often with my father, and looking at toys hanging in plastic bags on a display rack, and also loking at a great glass display case that contained all these pretty bottles of cosmetics and perfumes. Boxes of chocolates also looked festive and tempting. I think the Whitman Sampler chocolate box was the same then as it is now, one little thing that hasn’t changed.

Steve M
9 Jul 2011 10:15 pm

This corner of the blogosphere has been quiet for too long. Plus, the illustration for you now 2 week old post could be an advertisement. Have you sold out your blog? For shame. It would be one thing to sell out to Big Oil. But…Big Laxative?

15 Jul 2011 4:46 am

An exchange student who arrived last week, exclaimed in wonder as we entered Walgreens, “It smells just like the drug stores in China!”

Henry Barh
30 Jul 2011 7:47 am

The illustration of the corner drugstore reminded me of the long-gone (1982) Woodward Drugs on Joy and Myrtle Streets, Beacon Hill, Boston, as did the essay. The store was famous during WWII for the soda fountain where many sailors and soldiers met the women of Scollay Square on the way to a woman’s bedsit on a nearby street.

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