Hollie knows that I need cream for my coffee and that I don’t need syrup for my pancakes.
“We haven’t seen you in a while,” she says. It’s been about a month. It seems I’m now a regular at Sutton’s food counter, and that I was missed.
After the morning rush, owner John Woodard is also drinking coffee at the food counter. He looks great. Well rested. “That’s what people have been telling me,” he says.
The sign above the front door still reads Sutton’s Drug Store, but it’s now a drug store in name only. Woodard was the pharmacist at Sutton’s. But, last June, Woodard sold the pharmacy part of the business to CVS, which opened a few doors up the street on East Franklin in Chapel Hill.
Even without the pharmacy, Sutton’s is still Sutton’s. The food counter seems busy. Various odds and ends are sold on the store’s open shelves: Candy, snacks, newspapers, cigarettes and an impressive array of bottled sodas. Stacked next to the front register are free copies of a 2015 wall calendar with illustrations by Norman Rockwell.
INDY: How has your life changed since you closed the pharmacy?
JOHN WOODARD: The wonderful thing about it is that I don’t have the stress and the irritation of fighting with the insurance companies. It’s so nice not having to worry about that. Being able to stay afloat as a small independent—it’s just hard to do. It all comes down to profit. When you can’t make enough profit off the prescription volume, you need to cut and make some changes. I still come in every day just as if we were still open as a full-fledged drug store. This is my home away from home. This is where all my friends come.
Sutton’s first opened its doors in 1923. What was the place like in 1977 when you took over?
At that time, the store was full of all kinds of merchandise just like all the other stores up and down the block. We had lots of over-the-counter medications as well as toiletries. Even cleaning supplies. Most drug stores didn’t have food counters at the time. There were several stores that had a soda fountain where they served drinks and ice cream, but not much in the way of food.
I understand there used to be a cosmetics counter, and toys, too.
There was a toy store down in the basement. Mrs. Sutton had an incredible cosmetics counter, which I inherited when I bought the store.
You worked the pharmacy counter. Did you ever work behind the food counter or the soda fountain?
Oh gosh, yes. The first four or five years the prescription part of the store was struggling with all the competition up and down the block. There was plenty of time for me to learn what it was like to be an employee at the soda fountain. I loved to make the milk shakes. It got to be where I could make them pretty fast. I got to meet so many people by simply pouring coffee. I was taking food orders when it got busy as well as ringing up sales at the cash register.
The photos of Sutton’s customers on the walls, the Carolina basketball jerseys hanging from the walls and the ceiling—they’re a dominant feature of Sutton’s. How did the photo taking get started?
It was at that time in the early 1980s when the buying habits of the public started changing whenever the big box stores started coming. Don Pinney [now the store manager] and I went over to Durham and bought four booths that someone was trying to get rid of. We had them set up to see what we could do to increase the sales at the food counter. But the pegboard walls looked so bare. [Longtime Sutton’s cook] Willie Mae Houk and I were thinking: what in the world can we put on these walls to make them not look so bad? And she said: don’t you have pictures you took of some of the ball players when they’d come in to eat? I went upstairs and found 11 8x10s I had taken. And the next thing you know, we were getting people requesting: can we get our picture up there on that wall, too? The number of photos just mushroomed. I still have to have a camera here because you never know who is going to want to have their picture taken.
Fred Wasser is a radio and print journalist based in Chapel Hill. Contact him via Breathing Room Radio.