Drug Addict

I love shopping at pharmacy stores—more so, probably, than is healthy.

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You can buy chairs at the drugstore. Granted, the selection consists of remote-controlled lift chairs for the old or infirm, but still. They are chairs, they cost $799, and you can buy them at the drugstore. On my last visit, I was tempted to try one just to see how far it would launch me, but I was afraid someone I knew might see. So I moved on to the “walking sticks”—canes, for crying out loud—and blood-pressure cuffs. Those devices I expect to see at the drugstore, but chairs? That blows me away.

I am, you see, a traditionalist. Drugstores are for drugs and the occasional side item that might catch your eye, say, a shower cap or a bunion pad. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love the places—more so, probably, than is healthy. When I was growing up in Meridian-Kessler, I was allowed to walk to 56th and Illinois, where stood both Haag’s and Schoener’s. A girl could while away a summer afternoon in the cosmetics aisle at the former and peruse the colorful vitamins at the latter. And when you got sick of standing, you could perch on a spinning stool at the Schoener’s soda fountain and order a milkshake, poured from a stainless-steel canister into a perfect malt-shop glass. When I think about it, food at a drugstore is as strange as furniture, but the cuisine seemed right. It was holistic.

I once won $17.50 at a bingo tournament and spent the entire windfall at Haag’s on Max Factor Cream Puff powder, Lady Ellen hair clips, Evening in Paris cologne, and the like. My mother joked for years that not only didn’t I pitch in on household expenses, I hadn’t bought her anything, either. I was a woman on a personal mission, and there was no place more pure than the drugstore in which to indulge it.

And now, this: chairs and fresh produce and beauty consultants. The last time I visited Walgreens to purchase a vaporizer, I thought the viral infection I suffered had spread to my brain, causing me to go the wrong way on 86th Street and wind up in Saks. Brightly lit aisles of high-end beauty products occupied a prominent part of the store, along with uniformed advisers who could point you to the proper makeup brush or foundation. I didn’t see anyone getting a makeover, but I have read that some locations offer facials and massages.

This got me thinking: If drugstores have broadened their scope such that a customer can undergo a strep test, buy a bunch of bananas, and pick up a bottle of French perfume on the same visit, why not turn these retail establishments into even more spectacular destinations? Offer Botox injections, manicures, a bra-fitter, a hairstylist! Staff up with personal trainers, Zumba instructors, daycare! Just imagine all the associated items one might purchase to supplement those services. We’d need dumbbells and nail files and ice packs and toys! I love my idea! They should hire me!

However exciting the prospect, adding those accoutrements would worsen the identity crisis already afflicting most drugstores. I’m not sure when I actually need to go, aside from when it’s time to refill prescriptions. If I shop at the grocery once a week, do I really need to visit CVS for lettuce or cottage cheese? At how many other places can I now buy candles and coffee creamer, beach towels and waffle makers? The prices aren’t lower than at big-box discount stores, and the selection is far more limited. What are the honchos at these chain pharmacies thinking? I’ll tell you what they’re thinking: We can take over the world!

Why not turn drugstores into even more spectacular destinations? Offer Botox, manicures, a bra-fitter, a hairstylist!

On the other hand, according to unreliable Internet data, there are approximately 100 more CVS and Walgreens locations in Indiana than McDonald’s, so the suits must know something. I’m happy to see the stores on corners again, although I doubt many neighborhood kids are walking there these days. The next generation probably doesn’t even define the places, much less call them “drugstores,” a term used by timeworn people like me who still call cool-mist humidifiers “vaporizers.” Young folks are accustomed to buying gourmet coffee at gas stations; who needs limiting labels?

My granddaughter, then 3, was riding in the back seat when I advised her we’d be stopping at the drugstore. She nodded,
although she appeared confused. When we arrived, she said, “Where are the drums?” I thought the innocent comment hilarious and shared it with family and friends. Now, though, I realize she was either more familiar with the name “CVS” or, in matters of merchandise, might have been prescient.

Being old-fashioned, I still like pharmacies located at physicians’ office buildings, and especially those in hospitals. They haven’t veered from their original premise, which is reassuring, health-wise. I mean, can you imagine stopping in on your way from the doctor, amid hacking and bleeding patients, only to get behind someone buying press-on nails or Pink Lady apples?

Were I invited to a focus group— unlikely given the sarcastic nature of my opinions—I’d advise pharmacies to build on their strengths. Instead of selling more unrelated things, why not have booths where we can complain about symptoms to the pharmacist in private, like a church confessional? Or, better yet, automatic dispensers where capsules come clinking out like casino slot-machine winnings? I’d even be satisfied with a better method of signing for prescriptions than having a bunch of infected customers share the same pen.

Although I have no idea what a drugstore is anymore, I do still find them lovely and entertaining. There’s joyous shopping to be done, even if you are able to hoist yourself out of a recliner without automatic assistance. But somebody needs to come up with a more appropriate name: something modern, like “general store.”

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Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This column appeared in the November 2012 issue.

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