UNITED STATES—The advent of the chain store, Long’s, just a block from his Main and East Lake corner, caused my dad a great deal of worry. His confrere, Harry Johnson at Steinhauser & Eaton got a chuckle out of his anxiety, mimicking my dad: “The sky is falling, Long’s is coming.”
It was this big, uncontrollable, nameless, faceless thing coming down the street. He had big competition now; it was impersonal and big as a supermarket. To make way, they tore down the Crowley and Traulson garage and Studebaker dealership and the little shoe repair shop to make way for the new store and beach of parking—this added to a series of injustices downtown to downtown business people already endured: the removal of slanted parking from Main Street to give it more lanes.
What good were the passage of more cars for the shopkeepers if the cars didn’t have a place to park? Also, a sign ordinance vilified neon signs. They made shopkeepers take down the jutting signs, taking color and vitality off of Main Street. This copycat move from the boutique beachside town of Carmel lay bare the town leaders’ blindness to the town’s true and authentic character. Coinciding, in 1973 a plan was afoot to rename Watsonville, Monte Verde, Mar Vista, Bellagio or some such blandness to make it blend in with the million surrounding Spanish-named burgs.
At home there was a great deal of shrillness aside from the depressing repetition of the name Long’s, shorthand for doom. Something terrible happened and on Sunday mornings, when my mom and dad thought we children were asleep, she heaped on worry about the fate of the drug store, and it seemed something terrible was happening given beyond the arrival of the chain drug. The emotion was clear even if the facts were not. From that period after the death of my grandpa Bob, I grew up with the notion that the drug store was teetering, and destitution was knocking at the door.
Only years later, during a particularly unguarded moment my dad told me that he had lost his inheritance on the commodities exchange. His broker later committed suicide, which may be a completely unrelated fact, but it still figures in the nasty tale of shame and money. As a more generous observer told me, “Your father was a smart guy. His intention was not to lose money but do something for the family.” Less charitably my mother, who did the bookkeeping and billing for the pharmacy and who had a sharper business mind than Dad, was livid. The inheritance untouched would have been a real boon for them, strapped as they were for finances. The loss put inordinate stress on the “Front End,” the part of the traditional store that sold everything under the sun.
The thing is: after the loss of the inheritance and the arrival of the chain drug store, Johnson Drug lost its rudder. They hired tacky firms to stage big sales, that provided magenta banners, display ad layouts, and were supposed to bring crowds on to plunder merchandise with the telltale smell of Pacific Rim sweatshop. Selling remaindered records and kitchen goods and god knows was so depressing. Dad lost his swagger, and had to endure all kinds of talk from mom and smack parroted by me. He seemed to lose faith in himself and hesitated now when he signed his name.
With all these changes, there were still constants. Two things remained the bane of our family life: they were the silver tar-paper roof on the building that housed the drug store. Dad could be called down any rainy night because of a leak in the roof. And the second bane were emergencies. He could be called down any hour of the day or night; he would grudgingly answer the phone and put on his overcoat, his black London fog with the collar askew, over his striped flannel pajamas.
My mom recalled in her acerbic way, “It seemed like every night we would get a call to fill a birth control prescription.” The police were great, dad said, they would meet us at the pharmacy if we didn’t know the person well and they sounded a little sketchy.
To be continued…