Forward to the past

Forward to the past

Fair Oaks Pharmacy offers a retro respite from our troubled times

By Erica Wayne 03/12/2009

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Remember the movie “Pleasantville,” where the kids went through the TV and wound up back in the ’50s? Hula Hoops, crinolines, chrome-laden cars and intact nuclear families. It was bland, but it was definitely peaceful. Despite the “duck and cover” drills and bomb shelters, there was a sense of security and well-being that permeated most middle-class households.
Nowadays, kids sit zombie-like in front of screens (TV, computer, movie, cell phone — whatever), everybody — even your grandma — wears jeans, and the word nuclear isn’t used about families; it relates to terrorist threats. The ozone layer’s depleted, greenhouse gases are rising, the stock market’s in free fall and everything’s endangered. I, for one, am not a happy camper!

In troubled times like these, I wish I could retreat to Pleasantville, where there were more drive-ins than drive-bys and nobody “twittered.” Of course, time-travel’s not really possible, but there is a way to escape for an hour or so to a place that’s about as retro as it gets. I’m talking about the Fair Oaks Pharmacy in South Pasadena.   

The Pharmacy looks so old-fashioned it’s hard to believe it’s real. When I walk in, my thoughts are inevitably drawn to memories of Disneyland’s Main Street, Solvang, Williamsburg. On the corner of Fair Oaks and Mission, just down from the (sigh … defunct) Rialto, it’s a part-restoration, part-fabrication that fits right into its locale.

According to a prior menu, the “Fair Oaks Pharmacy has been South Pasadena’s friendly corner drugstore since 1915.” I don’t understand how anybody can vouch for its  century-old demeanor, but I can attest to its pleasantness during a lunch in 2009.

The Pharmacy’s gone through a number of transformations, not the least of which has been its name. At first, it was known as the South Pasadena Pharmacy, then (in the 1920s) the Raymond Pharmacy. Later,
as the Fair Oaks Pharmacy,it lived a nondescript existence until 1989, when new owners (the Millers) decided to gussy it up.
Artifacts were purchased from an ancient pharmacy in Joplin, Mo., and transported to South Pasadena. These treasures included a complete set of pharmacy fixtures, an original soda fountain, stained-glass cabinetry, marble-topped counters, heavy chrome barstools and original Hamilton Beach malt mixers.

They added other authentic soda fountain and apothecary memorabilia to this collection along with an array of unique gifts, greeting cards, toys and decorative accessories reflecting the era of the original store plus various classic collections of vintage film and television.

The Millers are no longer there; but the newest proprietors have lovingly maintained the retro staging. Their menu invites you to sit back and relax, but you won’t get the full feel of the place without a little exploration first. There’s a mind-boggling clutter of soap, costume jewelry, shirts, magnets and stuffed animals, Lucy (Ball, as well as Peanuts), Elvis, Marilyn, Superman, Betty Boop and Wizard of Oz collectibles.

I’m mesmerized by the huge amount of Coca-Cola and Route 66 paraphernalia. But not so rapt that I’m unable to admire the tin ceiling, tile floor, marble tables and ceiling fans. The period music that provides a backdrop to browsing and lunching is fantastic; and the “penny” candy (including those pink and white candy dots stuck on paper, Necco Wafers and Abba-Zabas) takes me back to my youth. I haven’t seen Bonomo taffy or wax bottles, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were simply out of stock.

There are concessions to contemporary tastes in the menu. For instance, you can get a grilled chicken Caesar salad ($10) or a vintage vegetarian sandwich ($7.95), filled with cheese and sprouts and stuff, with a small vanilla latte ($4.25). While these might be perfectly suitable choices at any other spot, that’s not what I come to the Fair Oaks Pharmacy to eat.

Sometimes I order a sandwich of grilled cheese ($5.50) or egg salad ($6.50) or a BLT ($7.25), always on white toast. Occasionally, reverting to a ’50s mindset free of worries about cholesterol or mad-cow, I have a cheeseburger with fries ($9.45). Once I tried a side of chili cheese fries ($5.95) because I thought I should. Frankly, I prefer their crispy fries to sodden chili-laden ones, but you might like them.

I’ve had more than a few wonderful ice-cream sodas ($5.50) and a single coffee phosphate ($2.95) that was way too sweet. Although they make an impressive hot fudge sundae ($5.50), it’s milk chocolate. I prefer Twohey’s bittersweet topping. But, oh, those banana splits ($7.25)! And the hand-dipped milkshakes ($5.75) are the real deal.

The Pharmacy’s tuna is classic, by which I mean it’s made without pickle relish, which I’m convinced, was added just to annoy my husband. Were I to bring him to the Pharmacy, he’d have to find something else to complain about. Perhaps the chili, which is less spicy than our own. But what the hey, it’s perfect for an early 20th-century, all-American lunch counter.
As I write this, however, CNN is reporting the further demise of my 401(k). The Fair Oaks Pharmacy’s prices aren’t nearly as cheap as they used to be (relatively speaking) a few years back, and my income isn’t nearly as great. So, while it’s still my favorite “forward to the past” retreat, I’m not sure just how often I'm going to be able to escape. If the economy doesn’t turn around, I may be reporting on PB&J from my kitchen.

Photos by Bettina Monique Chavez •  •



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