Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Drugstore soda fountains: A bit of nostalgia, a lot of home

Mechanicsville Drug

Regulars hold down the bar in Mechanicsville Drug Store’s soda fountain. (Copyright © 2011 David M. Lawrence)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Three years ago, Renee Bond started a day confused. She left for her waitressing job an hour early, took a wrong turn, and found herself in front of Mechanicsville Drug Store. She saw that it had a soda fountain inside. She went in to check it out.

By accident, Bond found herself a new home — literally. That night, she was hired to be Mechanicsville Drug’s new waitress. Within months, she and her husband found a home in the village called “Old Mechanicsville” where the drug store and its soda fountain is located.

“You walk in the door and you’re family instantly,” Bond said. “It’s like a connection. It’s a good thing.”

The connectedness that Bond feels at Mechanicsville Drug may explain something of an anomaly: in the 21st century, it is hard enough to find one town with a drugstore soda fountain. They largely disappeared from the American landscape in the 1970s. But Mechanicsville has two, with a third located about a mile south of the village in Henrico County.

Reid Paul, senior editor of the pharmacy trade publication Drug Topics, reviewed the history of the drugstore soda fountain in a 2007 article “The rise and fall of the pharmacy soda fountain.” Pharmacies began offering carbonated water — soda water — because of its perceived health benefits in the 18th century. Carbonated beverages became more and more popular, and by the 1880s the drugstore soda fountain had become an American institution. Drug Topics reported in 1929 that 75 percent of American pharmacies had soda fountains.

View Old Mechanicsville in a larger map

Soda fountains began to disappear in the 1960s. Patricia Kelly, in an article on soda fountains in the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, attributed the decline to a number of factors. Drive-in fast food chains spread. Ice cream treats and bottled versions of the beverages soda fountains specialized in became more widely available in stores. The post-World War II migration from cities to suburbs decimated the business districts where drug stores with fountains were concentrated. According to Paul, by the 1970s fewer than one-third of pharmacies had soda fountains. By the end of the 2oth century drugstore soda fountains had virtually disappeared.

Except in Mechanicsville.

Mechanicsville Drug’s soda fountain dates back in the 1940s, when Stuart Richards owned Mechanicsville Drug. Jay T. Thompson II, father of current owner Jay T.”Tommy” Thompson III, bought the drug store in 1957 and moved it across [Old] Mechanicsville Turnpike to its current location.

The younger Thompson said the novelty of the soda fountain experience has helped it survive.

“We have grandfathers bringing their grandchildren in Saturday mornings to experience the fountain, the drugstore … the lime-aids, the milkshakes that are handmade, things like that,” Thompson said.

Grandparents aren’t the only ones affected by nostalgia.

“Every now and then we’ll have someone come off the interstate,” Bond said. “They’ll be really fascinated. They’re maybe from another area or another town, and they’re like, ‘Wow! How long has this been here? I used to have one of these in my home town.’ ”

AUDIO: Mechanicsville Drug regular Roger Carroll shares his memories of what Old Mechanicsville used to be like.

Roger Carroll of Mechanicsville began coming to Mechanicsville Drug Store’s soda fountain with his parents in the 1960s, but as he grew up, he drifted away.

“I didn’t come here for years,” Carroll said. “About 12 years ago I bought a house up the street and started coming back. It never changed — a little piece of Old Mechanicsville when I was a kid. I’d see old schoolteachers from when I was in elementary school, doctors from when I was 3 or 4 years old. It’s still this little community. With all the things that have grown up around it, this is still where everybody came.”

Colonial Pharmacy, located about two blocks to the north of Mechanicsville Drug, originally lacked a soda fountain, but when the Oley family, proprietors of the Westbury Pharmacy in Henrico County, bought Colonial in 1991, they bucked the national trend and installed a fountain in what had been the Colonial’s gift shop area.

“We just put it in to meet the demand,” said Anthony Oley, who spearheaded the purchase of Colonial Pharmacy. “When we bought the fountain, a lot of Mechanicsville residents asked us to … please put a fountain in like we did in the West End, and when we did. … When you think of an independent pharmacy, you think of a pharmacy back in the days when service was king. And back then, every pharmacy had a fountain.”

Oley said the fountain allows the pharmacist to interact more with patients, giving them a comfortable place to talk — something that is often lacking in modern big-chain pharmacies.

AUDIO: Mechanicsville Drug regular Howard Townsend recalls some of the beloved storytellers who considered the soda fountain a second home.

Thompson said there’s more to the popularity of drugstore soda fountains than nostalgia and service, though.

“It’s home for a lot of people. It’s adult day care for some people,” Thompson said. “Sometimes some of these guys will sit in here for, like, three hours drinking coffee and talking, lying about fishing or hunting, whatever. … I’m sure that most places don’t appreciate you sitting around for three hours drinking coffee, taking up space. Here, it’s expected.”


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