The Little Drugstore That Could
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.
"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?"
"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.
"I love the place," Minter says. "I always make a point of going that way when I visit my sister in Canada. A large portion of it is a restaurant, and, yeah, they have gifts, but what it really is is a big, big block of tourist trap."
And this, he points out, is not just a matter of inventory, but of attitude.
"They were in the same position we are now," he says. "When business dries up, all you can do is adapt and not whine about what everyone's doing to you. They did that. They did that incredibly well."
Wall Drug's business was dried up by the Great Depression almost immediately after pharmacist Ted Hustead opened for business in 1936.
"What happened next is a classic study in marketing," recalls third-generation owner/manager Teddy Hustead. "My grandma zeroed in on the particular market segment she wanted to serve -- the traveling public. Then she figured out her product, which she decided would be free ice water. Then she priced it, and the price was FREE. Just to get the people in the store, because they had a great big soda fountain. After that, you gotta promote, and she told Grandpa to put up some roadside advertising. He went and did what nobody else in the family would have done. He put 'em the whole length of the state. The rest of us would have been embarrassed, but it worked. The story goes, as soon as Grandpa put up the signs, his first customers beat him back to the drugstore. It worked immediately."
As customers, locals and fans helped to spread Wall Drug's signs worldwide, business continued to boom. These days the Husteads recruit a small village's worth of seasonal help just to handle the summer rush -- offering not just paychecks, but dorm rooms, meals and entertainment to a crop of college students living in the middle of nowhere. They cater to tourists who suddenly find themselves coveting classic Wall offerings:
Tackiness, in the form of animated singing cowboys, jackalopes and plastic Indian maiden dolls so flimsy they disintegrate when undressed.
Bigness! A 520-seat restaurant. Thousands of crafts made by "artisans from all around!"
Artifacts! A pharmacy museum consisting of lots of Hustead family stuff and a human skeleton. Wild Bill Hickock's last poker hand.
Spirituality! (Okay, a rock chapel.)
Souvenirs and merchandise up the ying-yang! Baseball caps, sweatshirts, shot glasses, moccasins, Black Hills gold jewelry, foot-long pencils, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.
Cheap beverages! A cup of coffee will set you back just a nickel, and ice water is still free.
But Teddy Hustead's favorite Wall Drug amenity is history. "We do a great job preserving Western heritage," he says proudly. "We have Western artwork, Western books, a boot shop with 10,000 pair of boots. We put up a separate building in '94 just for our 1,400 historic photos of South Dakota at the turn of the century. There's nothing like it anywhere in the world that I've seen."
Still, he admits, the tourist trade can be fickle. "A lot of them don't give a lick about history," he says. "This guy in Golden had better start thinking of his business as an experience. I could go into the 'experience economy' speech, but who has time? He's gotta make sure there's plenty to see every time, and people will come more than once, so it has to change. It's always gotta be a fresh experience."
"And another thing," he adds darkly. "The proliferation of Wal-Mart. They put just about every rural drugstore out of business. You can't compete with that. You have to do something else."
Can Foss Drug become another Wall Drug?
"They have everything!" enthuses Golden Chamber of Commerce president Gary Wink. "They have today's and yesterday's most awesome location in the western suburbs. They have been there for eighty years, and they may really blossom with the antiques and all."
Wink shops Foss for his toiletries and greeting cards, as Goldenites have always done, but he also has his eye on a jukebox from 1959, the year he encountered a similar one in high school. He's willing to bet the average tourist will covet it, too.
"Golden is no Elitch Gardens, and you can tell by who comes here," he says. "No teenyboppers. Our visitors are baby boomers. We see that here in the spring of the year, when the Northerners come back in their motor homes. We have students, but they sure have their noses in their books a lot. They're not even sure where all the stores are."
For older and more dependable day-trippers visiting his town, Wink would like to imagine a schedule that goes something like this: Shop, eat, go to Coors, go to Foss, shop some more, eat some more, go home.
"The world needs to know it can be done here in downtown Golden," he declares. "And Foss is the anchor of downtown Golden."
But just how strong a position is that, given that the city recently held a "grand opening" for a series of new traffic circles on the outskirts of town, complete with fireworks?
"We're still a very small city," insists Tami Johnson, Golden's director of public affairs. "We all piggyback off each other, and I think Foss's attitude is healthy. It will behoove them. You move with the times, and they've moved into knickknacks and T-shirts, and I think that's great."
As for Wall Drug, "what's a Wall Drug?" she asks. "Is it good? It sounds good."
"I don't know the place," says Lisa Herzlich, marketing director at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, which has ranked as the metro area's first or second top tourist attraction almost since the day it opened. While Herzlich isn't worrying about competition from Foss Drug -- yet -- she decides to reserve judgment. "Here's what we know," she says briskly. "Here's how Americans do tourism: First they eat, then they shop. Europeans are the opposite: First they shop, then they eat. But shopping and eating is what it's all about. It's all about what you don't have at home. Wal-Mart is very popular. So are Colorado souvenirs. We get asked for them a lot, and we don't have much of it. A place that did..."
A place that did could find itself on the map!
"Here's what I think," says Jim Bain, chairman of the Colorado Travel and Tourism Authority. "You can't just declare yourself an icon. You have to earn it. Here's what a typical forty-year-old tourist wants: shopping and sightseeing. A babbling brook. Driving along a road looking at mountains. Anymore, a factory outlet. And, of course, you gotta buy the T-shirt."
Which is why Minter is making room for many more T-shirts -- as well as sports collectibles, McNichols Arena artifacts, plastic Indian maidens and more -- enough to infringe on the aisle labeled "TV Snacks."
"The older people don't like it," observes Wes Polk, Foss's liquor manager. Polk's father-in-law is a former mayor of Golden and Mines football coach; his wife has never lived anywhere else. "Nothing is where they think it ought to be. But people who've never been here before love it, and we've taken a beating from the new liquor stores, so we have to change."
During his three years at Foss, Polk has seen the liquor trade gradually turn from the six-pack-after-work crowd to sophisticated wine buyers, some of whom are still in college. "Disposable income is out there, is all I can say," Polk says, although he still stocks Razzberry liqueur, peppermint schnapps and other college-drinking-game fodder.
"But that's how we're different from the Wals!" Minter offers. "We can stock what we want. We don't have to go through headquarters in Arkansas; we just put it out there. Say some lady comes in here with this" -- he holds up a papier-mâché ladybug with elaborate decorative feelers -- "I'm apt to say sure, I'll try to sell that. We got a bunch of scented soap from Idaho Springs. We put in a massage chair you feed coins into. Why not? It's making money hand over fist."
Nor would the corporate Wals -- neither -Mart nor -greens -- know what to do with the Elton John Captain Fantastic Pinball machine, circa 1972, that currently sits in two pieces in the Foss basement. "Someone out there wants it," Minter promises. "I think it's cool. So do you. Slick, isn't it? This just might work."
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