Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lewisburg, Kentucky – Gateway to Adventure!

Let’s talk about drugstores. Yes, that’s right, drugstores. There was a time, not that long ago, when drugstores were full of wonderment and delight – doorways to all sorts of exciting worlds and  mind-expanding adventures, and it had absolutely nothing to do with pharmaceuticals.

I think about this every time I walk into the massive crackerboxes of crap that pass for drugstores now days. (Usually built at the busiest intersections possible to maximize traffic clusterf*cks and if possible, on ground where historic buildings previously stood – but I digress…)  Even though these miscarriages of modern architecture are ten, twenty times larger or more than the drugstores of my youth there is nothing in them you really want, stuff you need and have to have sure, but nothing that you want.

It didn’t used to be this way. Not only was going to the drugstore each week something I looked forward to with excitement, but any chance I had to go into a previously unexplored drugstore was even more exciting. The attraction of these pharmacies of yore, could be primarily expressed in terms of three – magazines, paperback books, and comic books.  Maybe you could find these in newsstands or bookstores in them there “big cities,” but out in the rest of America, drugstores were where it was at. For me, my primary source during the formative years of my life was Gower’s Drugstore in Lewisburg, Kentucky.

Like a lot of smaller towns in America, Lewisburg had been an “Average Deal” (not a “Big Deal” just “Average”) in the days of passenger railroads, but by 1972 the days of folks traveling by rail in western Kentucky were long gone.  The “main” street of Lewisburg was about three blocks long with the businesses still stuck in decaying building that all faced the train tracks and the empty field where the depot had once stood. In addition to the drugstore there was a bank, a barber shop, a hardware store, a feed store, and a few other businesses and that was it.  For a supermarket we had to drive another 10 miles to Russellville.

Although my parent’s original plan in having me take piano lessons was to make me the next Liberace (but without being gay, which of course, they had no concept of anyway…), the real result was that it fed my growing and eventual lifelong addiction for comic books, monster magazines, Mad magazine, and science fiction paperbacks. My piano lessons were on each Tuesday in Russellville, on the way there Mom would always make a stop in Lewisburg to go to the bank and drugstore. And that’s where my downfall began.

At Gower’s Drugstore they had wooden shelf racks (much like what magazines are typically displayed on today). The top section was magazines, the bottom section was paperback books stacked vertically with their spines facing out, but the middle section was all comic books. The very first comic book that I can remember buying with my own money was Flash #210 in September of 1971 – purchased at Gower’s of course. Although I loved it and re-read it many times, for some reason the funny book bug didn’t get a bite on me.

American history according to funny books! 

But the bug got another chance in the following April when I bought Justice League of America #99 and from then on I was off. Piano lessons didn’t really matter; it was getting to Gower’s each week to see what new comic books were on the stands. I had to have that fix! And even if I couldn’t afford to buy everything, there would be those days when I could at least look through, or maybe even read whole issues that I didn’t purchase.

Early on I realized that Jack Kirby's work was just too much for me.  His stuff was just too powerful and totally creeped me out in a way I couldn’t understand. I very rarely worked up the nerve to buy any of his books, but I looked at them. (Of course, now he’s my favorite comic book artist of all time, ah youth…) I can still vividly remember standing in Gower’s reading Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #1 every week until it disappeared from the shelf.

But even though the local drugstore brought wonderment and joy it also brought frustration.  Comic book and magazine distribution back then was crazy and unreliable.  Even though I was in Gower’s every week, it was not unusual to miss issues, just because they never showed up for sale. This drove a kid crazy, because back then if you missed an issue it was gone, daddy-o. The only hope you might have finding a back issue was trading with someone else, or the coverless, three for a quarter packs you could pick up at country markets (and there’s a whole blog comin’ about those babies). That’s why anytime I had the chance to duck into a “foreign” drugstore I took it.  It was better than hopping over the Berlin Wall to check out the types of shampoo available in the West, you never knew what treasures you’d find. 

Not me, not Gower's, not 1973, but you get the idea...

This catch as catch can method of distribution also shaped my buying habits in a big way. For example Grower’s Drugstore never had a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland on the shelf. So I was reduced to buying only the occasional issue when I would find one at a drugstore in Russellville or Greenville. My friend John Hudson’s regular drugstore was the one in Greenville.  They did carry FM  (but not every issue of course, grrr…), so his collection of monster magazines quickly exceeded mine.

The “golden age” of Gower’s came to screeching halt in the spring of 1975. One week I walked into Gower’s and noticed there was nothing new on the shelves. The books were the exact same ones as the week before. The next week it was the same. The next they were still the same. Panic really had me in grip its by this point, so I had to ask what was going on. They explained they were changing distributors and the new ones hadn’t started showing up yet. In the meantime I had to find another source and started frequenting drugstores in Russellville that I had only hit occasionally before. Even though Gower’s eventually did get some new product on the shelves, the bloom was off the rose. I had moved on.

Finally, all the comic books, magazine and paperbacks disappeared from Gower’s. In just a few years Gower’s would relocate out on the main highway that runs through Lewisburg, next to the new IGA supermarket and across the road from the new Lewisburg Bank building. Nowadays when I drive through Lewisburg on my way to visit my parents I pass right by these businesses without giving them a second thought. Now Lewisburg is just a small rural community where you make sure to slow down a bit and not get caught in the local speed trap, and perhaps stop for some gas and cup of coffee at the convenience store. But there was that time when it was my own private gateway to adventure.


Anonymous said...

Hey! Looks like this will let me comment. This is Pete Wilson. Is it a coincidence that your drugstore was named Gower's? Old Mr. Gower was the druggist whom George Bailey saved from becoming a child-murderer in "It's a Wonderful Life."

I spent many happy hours at a drugstore in Hermitage as a kid, reading all the comics I wasn't going to buy. I think the store was called Maxwell Drugs, and it was across a small drive from a strip shopping center called Hermitage Hills, which is still there now but much bigger. I bought DC superhero comics, especially Batman titles, but considered Richie Rich, Little Lotta, Casper, Wendy and the lot beneath me, at least when it came to buying. I'd happily sit on the floor and read them. Same thing with war comics and horror comics, for the most part. The old lady who usually was behind the counter cheerfully tolerated this. When my family first moved down to Hermitage from Brentwood, Missouri, that lady was one of the first people we got to know. These are nice memories.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I used to walk to that drugstore when I was little with my grandmother.