A Catskill Catalog: July 14, 2010

Christian’s Drug Store, on Margaretville’s corner of Walnut and Main, was a throwback to an earlier era, even in 1971, when I first entered the place. Joe Christian’s store was part newsstand, part soda fountain, part bus station, part candy counter.

“It’s not a public library,” Joe might bark at the kid who lingered too long over Sport magazine. Always attired in a not-quite-Mr. Rogers’ cardigan, Joe presided over the place from behind the soda fountain, the first thing you came to when you entered the Main Street front door. A bell rang when someone entered the side Walnut Street entrance.

Over the five-or-six-stool steel soda fountain, wooden apothecary shelves held tubes of Brylcream and rounds of paper-wrapped shaving soap that must have been in the same spot when the allies invaded Normandy. Joe seemed to sell a lot of black and white sodas and cherry cokes. He sold a lot of newspapers and cigarettes, magazines and Red Man chewing tobacco. The Brylcream and Noxzema never seemed to move.

Joe’s was one of two pharmacies in town. Dick Miller had taken the soda fountain out of his store when he modernized the place in the ’60s. By the early ’70s, Dick and his young partner, Joe Pedulla, seemed to fill all the prescriptions in town. Joe Christian seemed content to cede that part of the drug store business to them.

Up at the State Museum, there is an authentic early 20th-century pharmacy, carefully and methodically taken apart - shelf-by-shelf, drawer-by-drawer, glass case-by-glass case – at its original Main Street, Schoharie storefront, and reconstructed at the museum. I remember seeing it and thinking it’s got nothing on Christian’s and Christian’s was, at the time, still in business.
Dark wood shelves and drawers, counters and paneling gave Christian’s a rich connection to a more hand-crafted past. The deep layer of dust on them was evidence of that past’s continuity into the present. And Joe’s laconic growl and bright-eyed joke telling kept the place lively. Stop in Joe’s. See what’s going on.

Across Walnut Street was Bussy’s Market, operated by Kenny and Missy Miller, a supermarket in the very early 1950s sense of the word. Two checkouts, wood plank floors, produce bin, narrow aisles of groceries, dairy case, a bit of a freezer, and, in the back of the store, the meat case, with butcher behind the counter.

My first visit to Margaretville was to visit a friend in 1968 or so. We were college kids on summer break. My friend was holding down the fort at his parents’ house, alone. No food in the house. That’s okay. A walk to Bussy’s and a “Hey, Kenny, would you cut me a couple of T-bone steaks for the grill,” and there we were, eating like kings. No specialty butcher, no special trip to the Pork Store, just a walk “down-street” to the grocery store. Seemed pretty cool to me.

Kenny Miller was quite a guy: big, crew-cutted, rugged and nice. After Bussy’s closed, he served as Mayor of Margaretville. Before Bussy’s, Kenny was a professional baseball player, a minor league catcher in the Brooklyn Dodger organization. When I learned that he had once batted against Satchel Paige, the great Negro Leagues and Cleveland Indian pitcher, I asked him to tell me about it.

“Well, I heard three pitches,” Kenny said. I love that story. I know that I’ve told it before, and promise, I’ll tell it again.

Main Street, Margaretville, in 1971, was a thriving commercial hub. The local branch of the NBT Bank, managed by Gar Gladstone, held down the traffic light corner of Bridge Street and Main. On the opposite corner was Murray’s, one of several bars and grills in town: Lange’s - where the Village Pub is today - and Kelly’s Hotel on the property where, now, stands the Binnekill Square complex.

Miller’s Drug, Chuck Yaekel’s Liquor Store and George Bloodgood’s Hardware Store lined Main Street on that side. The Margaretville Department Store dominated the other side of the street.
I have certainly enjoyed my share of cups of coffee in Portfolio, the ultra-comfortable cyber café operated by entrepreneur Marc Levenshus in the Margaretville Commons. But, I must admit, it often seems odd to be enjoying a double expresso and pastry where, a blink of an eye ago, I bought boots.

Every part of the Margaretville Commons complex of retail spaces is associated in my mind’s eye with the various departments of that old-fashioned, plank-floored, country-style department store. Dorothy’s wonderful kitchen store: toys, Wiffle ball bats, those red Spaldeen rubber balls. Elvia’s quality children’s apparel shop: cards, gift wrap, needles and thread, notions.

Now, change is good, wonderful, in fact, and I, certainly, appreciate the comforts and conveniences of our wired, inter-connected, contemporary world. And I sure do like a good cup of coffee. Yet, these days, memory of what was often seems to butt up against the actual experience of change, reminding me that what has been lost has just as much value as what has been gained.
© William Birns