Generations have socialized at the Auburn Drug Co. fountain

A look back in time
By: Al Albertazzi Special to the Journal
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Today we usually call them ?pharmacies? but not too long ago they were just plain, old drugstores. Most were not very large and dealt mainly with prescriptions and general health items, from toothbrushes to ice bags to athlete?s foot remedies. They also carried some candies and greeting cards and small items that came under the catch-all term ?notions? and ?sundries.? Some had soda fountains where a ?soda jerk? would build you a banana split or mix up a Coke, the old-fashioned way ? with a squirt of Coca Cola syrup and a gush of carbonated water. It was a place where ladies would gather for coffee in the morning and which, when the school day ended, became teen magnets where the boys went to meet the girls. Times have changed, and most of us now get our prescriptions at a counter in a supermarket or at a large ?pharmacy? that sells everything from canned beans to garden tools. But there are a few hold-outs left, places where you can step back in time. One such place is the Auburn Drug Company on Lincoln Way. It is the oldest drug store with a soda fountain in California. It is up-to-date with its prescription and service, but pure ?20s and ?30s in its atmosphere. The store is much the same today as it was in 1974 when Charley Fink bought it from Clarence Reeves, and Clarence Reeves hadn?t changed it very much when he bought it from Henry Swanson in 1941. But the history goes back further than that, back to 1896 when James Gibson started the first Auburn Drug Company at what is now the present site of Roper?s Jewelers on Lincoln Way (then called Railroad Street). Gibson sold the store to Swanson in 1921, and it was Swanson who put up the current building and moved the business across the street in 1925. Swanson didn?t want to throw out all the old medicines, potions and ingredients that went into filling prescriptions and that had accumulated over the years. They?re still there. On a shelf toward the back of the store you?ll find a collection of bottles of antiquated pharmaceuticals dating back to the 1920s. Back then, during the years of Prohibition, the store was licensed to sell alcohol as a medicinal. With a wink, Charley says that he?s not sure that all of it went for truly medicinal purposes. When Prohibition was repealed, the store kept a small supply of liquors for sale, and this was finally phased out. The owner and head pharmacist at that time was Clarence Reeves, and old photos of Lincoln Way show the store with a marquee sign identifying it as Reeves' Drugs. Reeves, who also served a term as Auburn?s mayor, ran the store for 33 years, and his son, Albert, worked in the store, studied pharmacy, and later became a physician. Charley Fink, now 84 years old and a pharmacist for 60 years, bought the store on his own, but he has had some partners in the business over the years. In 1983, Jim Coleman merged Placer Pharmacy with The Auburn Drug Company and remained with the firm until he retired in 1987. Since then Charley has acquired two other partners, Liz Briggs and Andrea Packheiser. The store also carries a line of cards and gift items. Liz Briggs says ?We get a lot of tourists who are surprised that we have a working pharmacy. They think it?s just a gift shop.? But it?s much more than that. No matter what changes have occurred in ownership, the store has always maintained its old-time atmosphere, and the center of the store has always been its marble soda fountain. One-hundred sixteen years old, the 12-stool fountain includes a lamp on a short post of brass and marble topped with a genuine Tiffany lampshade. The fountain has been moved a few times, but it is a basic part of the Auburn Drug Company. It dates from James Gibson?s original drug store but in a later remodeling was sold to the old Sugar Plum Creamery. When the Sugar Plum went out of business, Henry Swanson bought the fountain back and had it installed in his new store, where it sits today. Generations have sat at the marble counter by the Tiffany lamp and sampled treats from phosphates to milk shakes to the store specialty, ?Irish Soda,? a house original. Charley notes that occasionally a customer at the fountain will mention that he used to drop in years ago and wants to see if the old place is still the same and give his children a glimpse of how things used to be in a past that rapidly grows more distant. Al Albertazzi has lived in Auburn since 1964. He writes an occasional column on local history.