By Frank M. Costantino
With heartfelt pangs from nearly everyone who were long-time customers, regular or occasional “members” of the counter/coffee klatch, after-school kids, or a harried senior with a new ‘scrip to fill right away, Brown’s drugstore was an indispensable service to the entire Winthrop community. Recently managed by Carla Petrucelli, DPh, who took over after Harry Ofilos’ still-felt passing, Brown’s Pharmacy has enjoyed an enduring presence in our town.
Prior to Harry and his interim partner Bill Bagley taking over, two upstanding pharmacists, Nelson Dalrymple and Carl Ravich, ran Brown’s for many decades; both of whom were pleasant, dedicated professionals in their chosen business. They had set the tone from which Harry had run Brown’s for over 35 years. Prior to these four, and beyond this writer’s personal knowledge, this corner store had been a service to the community since 1914, in the notably designed and recently restored Wadsworth Building. Brown’s Drugstore was one of at least seven pharmacies that did business in Winthrop, four alone in the Center.
What made Brown’s so special for the past 60 (and perhaps over 100) years was the casual, friendly nature of this neighborhood place. Once inside the recessed entry (itself a welcome relief during chilly, blustery winter days), the newspapers were piled on either side of the door – to the right the shelves of dailies and the Transcript; to the left on the radiator cover, yesterday’s, or the old Sunday papers waiting for a last perusal or pickup. The store’s sturdy mahogany door was custom built and installed by the late brother cabinet-makers Joe & Tony Stasio, whose woodworking shop was conveniently around the corner from Brown’s on Madison Avenue.
Usually the counter pundits were reading or discussing the top news stories over a coffee at the counter. And there were “regulars” of various generations who, not only had their break “schedule” (coming in about the same time each day), but shared good company for years at that counter. But more on that later.
The old marble soda fountain top was most likely a sturdy relic from its original construction. However, Harry had it changed to a less porous Formica top early into his residency; probably because of one or another customer (or so this “story” goes). Old Charlie Wheaton was a milk delivery man; the father of Bobby Wheaton – who first started and ran Woodside Hardware. Probably at that time, Charlie was servicing more commercial customers like Brown’s. But his favorite break in a late morning came with a coffee and some coconut or sugar doughnuts that Harry would bring in every morning from Mike’s Donuts in Everett.
However, scrunched down over his coffee and hurriedly chowing down on one or two donuts, Charlie would almost always leave piles of coconut or crumbs on the counter, the stool, and the floor; before dashing out to his truck; presumably to be sure the milk was keeping cold.
As the tale now stands, it’s considered likely that either Harry or the Health Dept. felt that the old marble top, nice as it was, could not get cleaned enough from customers’ leftovers; and hence the counter change. But at least the other vertical surfaces are still a durable marble.
The folks that came in at their preferred times for their coffee and the latest news, were of different generations. Quite often, his “regulars” would be waiting at the door for Harry in the morning, depending on his bringing Mike’s tasty donuts for their morning snack. Also, since it was around 8 am, a regular would sometimes make the morning coffee for Harry. The two or three pots of coffee were always fresh, to stimulate the chatter; which could last for an hour or more. And if the flow of prescriptions slowed a bit for him, Harry would take a break from behind his glass cabin to join in. The “old” guard were folks like Red, Dick B, Maurice Kirby, sometimes the fire or police chief. In one way or another, they were school friends, long-time residents of the Town, or also elected officials or town workers; but for whom there were always some critical issues to discuss.
The more recent senior crowd included Jack D, Chris T, John F, Nicky T, speedy Jason, John McL, John E, this writer, and sometimes Selectmen, School officials, or former councilors, among others, who shared a coffee, a story or an opinion; or pretty much talk about anything. But there was always much laughter as well, with which to better return to the day. Other pop-ins included the ever-swift Jimmy G, the UPS driver, who always had a smile or a joke, but hardly any time but to run in and out to drop off packages. Or previously folks would come in for a quick errand after a stop at the old post office (now the police station).
Patsy C. would take a breather, and stop in for a scratch ticket with whatever else he needed. So did Hilda, the drapery lady and Dave McD, Windows Plus; all of the latter who had street-side shops in the Wadsworth building. Dear Mrs. Elaine Marley and her daughters, Susan and Charlene, were also customers at Brown’s, and there were always pleasantries to exchange with each of them. Elaine always asked about my kids, though all three had toddled through her school some forty years prior. Mrs. Marley’s school was another of the Winthrop Street businesses that frequented the pharmacy.
Kirby Funeral home next door provided a welcome break between services for Maurice’s, then Warren’s, then Warren Jr’s staff, all dressed in black outfits or overcoats. Not to mention the many relations of a deceased party who was being handled by Kirby’s, the Caggiano, Reynolds, or the Frazier funeral homes; all nearby on Winthrop Street.
George Bolster and his lovely wife would tend to drop in later in the day, around 5 or 6 p.m., depending on the season. When one saw a vintage red convertible, or other handsomely restored antique vehicle outside Brown’s, one knew the couple was there for a coffee. After-school time brought another wave of customers – kids stopping in for handfuls of candy and gum from the counter-top glass jars, at just the right height for youngsters to grab what they wanted. Sometimes the “regulars” would buy a kid a cone or scoop of ice cream.
Harry also had many ethnic family relations and friends who on occasion would exchange animated or important discussions in Greek; which was a pleasure to hear even though this one could not understand the language.
Dropping in was generally a relief from cares of the day; seeing friends you hadn’t run into for weeks (or longer), and chatting helped those cares drop away for a few moments. Folks didn’t seem to mind waiting in line, because it provided a chance to catch up; the impromptu nature was just part of being neighbors, and sharing one’s stories; an easy, comfortable place to hang out, if only for a short while.
Because I had my office on the second floor of the Wadsworth Building for 15 years, I had many a closing hour with Harry – either when I needed a break, or had an evening’s work ahead. On those later times, Harry would always offer a free cup of coffee for me, and we’d have lengthy discussions about various affairs of the day before he had to close up the store.
Since it seemed that Harry was always working hard in the back room, I don’t ever recall seeing him leave to take a break for a lunch, and wondered if he just “ate at his desk.” Sometimes Harry would grab a scoop or two as an ice cream snack; perhaps even his lunch, or a dinner appetizer. But like his predecessors who always seemed to be in store, Harry put in a long seven-day week; half a day on Sundays. It always seemed mysterious just how Harry handled all those scrips in that little back room; which was shielded by higher shelves of products, but with a small open slot through which he could keep an eye on the traffic into the store. But rustled from those white paper bag filled bins, your order was always found and signed for. Brown’s also provided deliveries to many folks who could not get to the store, which was a very welcome, but generally not publicized, service.
Brown’s always benefitted from great counter helpers and staff workers; and with high school girls summering at the fountain. The counter service was always pleasant, with the ever- smiling Lois DiG there for many years, sharing in the stories and gossip, while serving coffee, donuts, ice cream, candies, or bringing the drop-off-scrips to Harry; or getting the right white bag for customers. Denise B was a long-time assistant for Harry, as well as Tammy S., the women who were the welcoming face for visitors. Chris, Harry’s nephew, was also very efficient with all aspects of getting what a customer needed – whether a coffee, a prescription, or that winning scratch ticket.
The store’s original interior space was handsomely crafted of deep-brown, carved mahogany, and the traditional classic design was evident in the rich, dark woodwork and finishes, the glass cabinets, stained glass details, and mirror backdrops. Accented by some stained glass, the old phone booth in the rear corner of the store (which did work at one time, and I had occasion to use it) ended up becoming a crutch and umbrella storage. At the top of the rear cabinetry, were displays of old pistils and druggist figures, which accented the display shelves. The old hand-key cash register (shown below), behind the pick-up counter, was likely original to the store. An old back-counter pill drawer system, with some ninety or so storage drawers were well- worn, though no longer used for medicine storage.
Harry made some other updated changes – at his own expense – to heat and cool the place, upgrade the lighting, added some drink coolers, a Keno board, an array of scratch tickets, neon signage, and other things. But always within and adding to the character of the place. Harry must’ve had an old friend in the apparel business who always brought in seasonal goods for sale – generally sold out of big cardboard boxes on the floor. Knock-off Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins or Celtics hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, plus scarves, gloves, or other fun things lining the floor or glass counter tops.
For as long as most folks remember, Harry had seasonal decorations arranged by Harold & Ryan McC and Karen H, who nicely dressed up the large display window three of four times a year. It was sad on the last day to see Karen remove all her spring time displays just prior to the closing.
Dr. Carla, who had worked for and with Harry for many years, was advised, supported and mentored through Mass. College of Pharmacy, a very rigorous and demanding program, before she had taken over the prescription work. She had started working at the store when she was in high school, if not earlier; since her Mom had a drapery business on Winthrop Street too.
Thursday June 13, the announced closing day, was a sweet sorrow. All customers and townsfolk were invited to stop by, have some ice cream and cake. There were two Italian style large cakes; a chocolate one was top-decorated with a picture of Harry. Many folks stopped in during the course of that last day to have a piece of cake or an ice cream cone, a cup of free coffee, share stories and laughs, and reminisce in different ways.
What Brown’s – and other stores like Reilly’s, Stover’s, Samuels, Highlands and Delby’s (which lives on with the corner of Shirley and Washington streets still named “Delby’s Corner”) – represented was not just a service business; they also represented distinct neighborhoods in town. But like these venerable places, Brown’s was also a gathering place for folks with common needs. Though those needs may have been critical or urgent, the pace was somehow slowed by coming into such stores, seeing a friendly face, sharing a story, slowing down time, and knowing that you would readily get what you wanted. To some extent that feeling still happens at the Marketplace, the post office (if there’s a line), and other small breakfast and coffee shops. But the dynamic was different at Brown’s because of the well-worn and comfortable character of the place.
If one had their druthers, Brown’s should be transformed in some manner, with an inventive entrepreneur that can appreciate and utilize this special place, with much benefit to everyone. Change is not easy. Things have become more fast-paced, harried, and lots gets passed by or lost along the way. But I would hope that there is some imaginative and economical way that Brown’s can be reinvented, its qualities retained, and a new spirit found, which can celebrate its most tangible characteristics. The small compact establishment with a big imprint should continue to be a defining factor in this Town.
Brown’s was much more than just a pharmacy or a store. It was actual evidence of good neighborliness, of a comfort within our small town character, of an open environment of trust; a “security blanket”, as one party observed. Anyone could come in “out of the stream”, feel some psychological relief, get becalmed by the interior environs, and leave feeling a bit better – with or without a prescription. In some way, losing
Brown’s diminishes us all. Institutions that can precipitate these very qualities should continue to be a big part of the fabric of our Town. Brown’s was such a time-honored institution for our community.
Many residents will have their own similar, unique, or varied impressions of this place. But folks’ memories of Brown’s will remain for a very long time.