The Little Drugstore That Could

Up against the Wall, Golden!

Downtown Golden's Foss Drug began the new year in a shambles -- the Patty Cake Break Cake display jammed into a crevice next to the Ride the Champion coin-operated horse, the magazine racks rumpled and picked over, the basement full of Y2K water no one ever bought. And while the portion of the store's historic tin ceiling visible to the public is scenic, it's also leaking. Still, give the place a break. It's trying to survive.

"Right now I admit it -- we're sucking air," says Mike Minter, Foss's general manager. "It's a mess, but we'll fix it." Surveying the baskets of old-time (and modern-day) candy that sit beneath a large, wooden "Old-Time Candy" sign, Minter outlines the micromanagement techniques he's using to execute that fix. Having taken a personal interest in confections with tiny profit margins, he stocks the all-chocolate roll of Necco wafers, bright-red wax lips that turn into chewing gum when you're through sticking them to your face, and candy cigarettes, "which my buyer and I went round and round about," he recalls. "My take was, hey, I grew up with candy cigarettes and I'm fine. I never smoked real ones; I don't have lung cancer. His take was, maybe so, but Foss Drug has a clean image to project -- we can't be selling cigarettes to kids! Maybe so, I decided, but kids won't buy these, anyway. I will. You will."

So will other forty-year-olds with nostalgic tendencies and spare change -- the people who will save the downtown drugstore, Minter predicts, even as massive development on the edges of Golden siphons away the prescription, liquor and sundry business that has been Foss's lifeblood since it opened in 1913.

Another roadside attraction: Mike Minter and a few of his favorite things at Foss Drug.
James Bludworth
Another roadside attraction: Mike Minter and a few of his favorite things at Foss Drug.

"We're eight blocks from the School of Mines, and we've always been able to get students in here to buy notebooks, a six-pack, toilet paper," Minter says. "We've always had a pharmacy and a liquor store. But last January, King Soopers came in and blew us out of the water. The city gave two new liquor licenses, and there's a whole lot of new development on South Golden Road. The city spends a little money trying to direct traffic back downtown, but we can't rely on them. It's adapt or die."

Minter took on his share of this challenge three years ago, when he quit his job at a local Walgreens -- "tired of the corporate presence," he says -- and went to work for semi-retired Heinie Foss, whose mother had started the store, and majority owner and former pharmacist Bob Lowry. It soon became clear to Minter that the products Foss was known for -- the greeting cards and cosmetics, prescriptions and bottles of booze -- would have to stay. "Keeping the pharmacy is a condition of our liquor license," he explains, "and our liquor license is the oldest in the state. It dates back to one week after Prohibition ended. But we decided we needed more in the way of souvenirs."

And so Minter began contemplating the eternal question: What does a tourist want? Sitting in his office, surrounded by the evidence of his own life as a tourist -- his collection of more than fifty floaty pens -- and strumming a Beatles tune on his guitar, he pondered the vagaries of people who might want to purchase proof that they'd visited Colorado.

"I thought about Beanie Babies. Man alive, did we go through them. But that party's over now. So I decided floaty pens are important. I decided to concentrate on nostalgic things with intrinsic value. Gas pumps. Die-cut model cars. Autographed footballs. Old railroad signs. Sweatshirts. Last Christmas we sold more than 1,000 Colorado sweatshirts. We'd better get some more in," he reminds himself.

"It's either us or the 16th Street Mall. We're getting the new customers, from places like Highlands Ranch and Parker. They tell us they love it. Some of the people in Golden, on the other hand, are mad at us," he admits. "We were the local drugstore, and we don't have, for instance, all the cosmetics we used to have. But, sorry -- cosmetics died for us. We need that space for die-cut cars if we're going to make it. What can you do?"

Yeah, what?

"Mention Wall Drug," Minter suggests. "I love Wall Drug. I'd love this place to be just like that. It could happen."

With billboards throughout this country's interstate system and as far away as Vietnam, Easter Island and the London subways, Wall Drug is the epitome of the Unsubtle Roadside Attraction. Once a small pharmacy, Wall Drug has grown to engulf the South Dakota town that spawned it, in the process becoming a gigantic restaurant/gift shop. Its 1920s-era pharmacy counter has been subsumed by an old-timey Pharmacy Museum, beside which are unlimited ways to shed cash, including jackalopes both big and small.

There are those travelers who think all of this makes for a pleasant break along an uninhabited strip of the Badlands. There are those travelers who feel sickened at the unholy commercialism that socks them after a thousand-mile come-on. But members of both groups ultimately respond in the same way: They buy something.

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