Growing up in the farming community of North, S.C., Christmas Eve meant one thing – working at my father’s drug store.
It was a time before shopping malls, Super Walmarts and certainly before 24/7 online shopping. It was a time when the 1,000 souls of my hometown relied on the small row of stores along Main Street for their daily needs. As you walked along the storefronts, there was Derrick’s Hardware (which included a 5 &10 cent section) and North Furniture Store – with the best prices on furniture outside of Hickory, N.C.
At Etheridge’s Hardware, old-timers would sit around its wood-burning pot-bellied stove swapping stories about their exploits on the sport fields and lies about the fish they caught as well as the ones that got away. Rumor had it that the store even occasionally sold hardware.
There was Paul Inabinet’s barber shop with giant, traditional red leather barber chairs. Metal signs mounted upon the walls encouraged men to “Ask for Wildroot.” (I never did). Combs and scissors soaked in barber’s solution along the counter. And in the back room was a coin-operated pool table – an area that many mothers warned their impressionable children to stay away from lest they lose their weekly allowance to the town pool sharks.
But the greatest retail outlet of them all was my father’s drug store – R&J Drugs. This was no ordinary small-town store. It was – in my eyes – the Saks Fifth Avenue of North, S.C. Never you mind that I had never even been to New York City. The Christmas displays at R&J Drugs were stunning, with glitter and artificial snow sprayed on the front window forming stellar dendrite snowflakes. Boxes, wrapped in green and red with big white bows were carefully displayed for the citizens to see. Sitting on top of the boxes were elves, their jolly eyes and smiles calling for shoppers to come in and spend their hard-earned cash.
Once inside, there were twinkling lights and white columns wrapped in red ribbon creating eight-foot candy canes. Our employees embraced the spirit of the season. Mr. Heyward Robinson – who had worked at the drug store even before my father bought the place – would greet customers wearing a bright red felt waistcoat and a bowtie in the shape of a holly leaf. Christmas carols performed by Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Andy Williams would play over the P.A. system, fed through a stack of 33s on the record player.
The selection of merchandise was unsurpassed for miles around. Timex watches, Buxton wallets - even Prince Matchabelli perfume with royal crown serving as its bottle top. We had jewelry for the ladies and pocketknives for the men. Toys for children and even the latest albums and eight track tapes for the teens.
We were a proper drug store, which means we had a soda fountain. The often balmy South Carolina Decembers encouraged customers to indulge in a few scoops of buttered pecan or black sweet cherry ice cream while they shopped. Or a real Coke made in a fountain machine that mixed Coca-Cola syrup with carbonated water. Banana splits and ice cream sundaes topped with rich chocolate syrup and walnuts coated in sugary goo.
Christmas Eve went by like a flash. From sun up to sun down, the entire Owen family worked serving what seemed like the entire population of the town – ringing up customers, wrapping presents, scooping ice cream, wishing everybody the merriest of Christmases.
At lunchtime, my sisters would arrive with homemade lasagna to feed hungry workers. Then came the afternoon onslaught of last-minute shoppers. Before you knew it, it was 8 p.m. and time to close. Against my mother’s wishes, my dad would pop the cork on bottle of cheap sparkling wine at the end of the day and offer a hearty “Cheers” to all of the staff.
No doubt that my lenses have grown a little rose-colored over the years as I look back at those days. I don’t know if my childhood was really a Frank Capra movie, but George Bailey sure would have felt at home working in that drugstore.