UNITED STATES—When I was in Mexico, a place where time-capsules have a better life expectancy than in California, I would come across these drug stores, the would be faded and filled with all kinds of merchandise, and I would close my eyes and there was that smell. Of buffered aspirin and Maja face powder and hot –rod magazines. And for a moment I was taken back to the old drug store.
My dad was in that stepchild of show business, being a local merchant. He was a success: the public kept coming for 44 years to get their drugs, their sprays, their healing elixirs and emoluments, and surely the occasional person who found on his shelves material to get high.
When my parents bought Johnson Drug Co. in October 1962 their ambition was not to establish a non-profit organization—which it became in a sense—but the fulfillment of a decade-long dream, the culmination of a trek from Idaho to Elko, Nevada to the Alaskan Territory to San Diego and finally Watsonville. My dad was a pharmacist, and in those days every self-respecting pharmacist had his own drug store. It would be their anchor, certainly my dad’s.
Johnson’s was the corner store, bought from a cantankerous, white mustachioed gent Al Meyer, who had a certain resemblance to the Kaiser Wilhelm. Mr. Meyer told the girls, “Take good care of the store. I want it to be in good shape when I get it back.”
The drug store was founded in 1902 by the Mendershietz Brothers. Johnson Drugs at the corner of Main and East Lake got its name from the second owner, E. Martin Johnson. Unlike my dad, E. Martin Johnson must not have been averse to seeing his name on big signs and pharmacy labels, and felt no compunction about blazing his name over the Mendershietz Brothers. So Johnson’s it remained after Al Meyer, who’d purchased the store in the mid-1930s, sold it to my parents on October 1, 1962 on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. Ironically, my dad came to be known as Mr. Johnson by many customers.
So why didn’t the name change from Johnson’s to Meyer’s to Miller’s? According to my mom, “Meyer told us not to change the name because, ‘people in Watsonville don’t like change.'” They followed Meyer’s wisdom and it caused many people to familiarly refer to my dad as Mr. Johnson. They still do. Just as he’d called Meyer Johnson when he first called about this store that might be for sale.
“I answer to both,” Meyer said.
Back when they started out there were a ton of pharmacies around town—Steinhauser & Eaton, Ashcroft’s, McKells, Freedom Pharamacy. Many were emporia filled with everything under the sun, a few had their forte. The Prescription Pharmacy, a little spot in the marbled Lettunich Building, sold liquor and perfume and chocolate. My dad told me they did a lot of business with ladies from houses of ill fame. “Jack Humble did quite a trade.”
When my dad started out the store was open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and he was there for all those hours. He wore a crisp white jacket and a tie, sometimes a clip-on bow tie. My dad didn’t take Sundays off until 10 years later. He would come home very late, drive to the first bungalow we lived in on East Lake. He was away a lot. He didn’t take Sundays off until 10years later, the seventies, and he never seemed suited for leisure time.
To be continued…