Last seat at the counter

Posted: June 25, 2007

It's not the sights that entice.

It's the sounds - the sizzle of hamburger on a hot grill and the mechanical purr of a Hamilton Beach blender as it transforms syrup and ice cream into a milkshake. And it's the smells - coffee, eggs, mustard, grease.

Listen closely, and take a last whiff, because it's going away.

At the close of business today, the Wynnewood Pharmacy shuts its doors forever, taking with it its L-shaped lunch counter, a piece of Americana that for 50 years has been a gathering place for those in search of a good hot dog and friendly conversation.

"I could cry," said server Dora Piccinino, whose husband, Rudy, works the cash register. "I already did, with one of my customers."

So while there's still time, take a seat on one of the 17 stools - no chairs or booths here - and set your elbows on the Formica counter. Notice how the color has been worn away in spots by the gentle, years-long rubbing of forearms and palms.

You already know Dora. Beside her works Linda McGoldrick, employed 18 years.

The soda fountains behind them are original, made by the Fischman company of Philadelphia, their swan necks a graceful reminder of an era when the city was a manufacturing giant. All around, the walls and machines track time's passage. An old ad touts Tab. A soda dispenser has a label for Lemon-Up.

Here, you can still order an egg cream, the classic soda-fountain concoction that contains neither eggs nor cream. Grilled cheese with bacon? Coming right up. Sliced-egg sandwich? Sure. And you can have any kind of salad you want - as long as it's tuna or chicken.

Regulars come for the food, but not just for that. Though the lunch counter doesn't possess anything that might pass for fine-dining ambiance, it abounds with friendliness.

"It's kind of like Cheers, only on a smaller scale," said Ken Jacobs, 33, of Narberth, who first visited with his father and now brings his year-old son, Ross. "It's like an extended family."

At lunch last week at the Wynnewood Shopping Center pharmacy, people crowded around, vying for a chance to hold the boy.

"It's like one big table," said Joel Realberg of Bala Cynwyd. "Everyone is in everyone else's discussions."

What do they talk about? Everything. Anything. They talk about who is sick and who got well, the prospect for rain or heat. Many of the people who eat and work here have known one another, at least by first name, for decades. They take care of one another in small ways that could be easily overlooked.

"Tell me what you need," Piccinino says to Nancy Yaskin, who is 81 and doesn't see so well.

"I need," Yaskin replies, pausing over the thought, "a chocolate ice cream soda."

"Chocolate and vanilla ice cream, or all chocolate?"

"All chocolate, but don't put too much syrup in it."

That's how the conversation goes, from flavorings to families to Phillies. And, lately, to the closing.

"It's had its day," said pharmacist and owner Bruce Powell, 46, who also stocked high-end perfumes and cosmetics.

People keep telling him he can't shut the store, that the place is an institution. They tell him they remember when the shopping center - now anchored by Borders, Genuardi's and a Bed Bath & Beyond - was an empty field. They tell him that, if he's really leaving, they want a spoon or coffee cup as a souvenir.

Powell took over the pharmacy in 1999, the third owner, and he expected to stay a long time. Instead, the proliferation of chain drugstores and, even more, the falling reimbursements of insurance companies, led him to conclude he could do better working for someone else.

Yeah, he agrees, the pharmacy is an institution - with 50-year-old plumbing and wiring, and all the woes of age. Health Department inspectors haven't always been happy with the food operation.

There are reasons lunch counters have become rare.

For one, say those who study American culture, ours has become a more individualistic society, one where people are no longer inclined to chat with whomever might sit down beside them. People's eating habits have changed, too. Luncheonettes rose to prominence in the day before fried became a dirty word.

"The lunch counter served a unique role," said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, past president of the International Popular Culture Association.

The counter was the link between the sit-down restaurants of the 1940s and 1950s and the fast-food venues that emerged in the 1960s, he said. As society sped up, eateries such as McDonald's and Burger King helped drive the luncheonette to extinction.

"Linda," a man calls - he's already heard the news - as he comes through the door. "How are you?"

"All right," McGoldrick answers from behind the counter. But she sounds sad.

"It was an amazing place to work," she said. "I saw a lot of children grow up."

The people around her know how she feels. Joan Brogan, 63, has been coming to the place nearly 40 years. At the counter, she said, everybody was welcome to have a seat, a bite, and a kind word.

At one time, lunch counters were common in pharmacies and in department stores such as Woolworth's and McCrory's. In the 1960s, their integration became a battle, ultimately a victory, for civil-rights advocates. Part of the Woolworth's counter from Greensboro, N.C. - site of one of the movement's most significant protests - now resides in the Smithsonian.

The one in Wynnewood isn't headed to a museum. There's been talk of a last-minute buyer, someone to save the store and its lunch counter. But Powell said that's only talk. The lights will go out tonight at 6.

Powell has no plans for a ceremony, no reading of a eulogy. People have been saying goodbye on their own, exchanging phone numbers, hugs and handshakes.

"These people, they come in for us. We're their family," Piccinino says. "Now they want to come to my house for dinner."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8110 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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