Looking Back

The era of lunch counters

By Mary Ellen Shaw

Coffee shops seem to be the trend these days. People want a spot to sit and relax, enjoy a cup of coffee and have something light to eat.

Back in my youth, during the 50s and 60s, people did that at lunch counters. Of course, they were not staring at their electronic devices while they were eating! They may have had a newspaper in their hands but no cell phone or tablet.
You didn’t go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts back then; oddly enough you went to a pharmacy or a variety store.

Because my father was a pharmacist and worked in most of the downtown drug stores during his career, I had a seat at most of the counters. If I was sitting there during school vacations, I would see workers from downtown offices and stores coming in for soup and a sandwich at noon time. I liked to listen to them banter back and forth.

Downtown was a fun place to go after school. I always stopped at Carpenter’s Pharmacy where my father was working during my early school days. It wasn’t unusual to bring a friend or two with me. My father would come out from the back area where prescriptions were filled to greet me. One time he even got my ice cream for me as the women manning the counter were busy and he had a free minute. In today’s job descriptions that would fall under the category of “performs other duties as required!” In mid-afternoon lunch counters turned into soda fountains. I wasn’t the only one who craved ice cream or a milkshake. The counters were full of people enjoying the same treat that I did.

The downtown pharmacies that had lunch counters back “in the day” were Shangraw’s and Carpenter’s on Center Street and McClallen’s on Merchants Row.

I have only a vague memory of Shangraw’s fountain area because I was very young when my father worked there. I remember a relative telling me that it was a popular spot back in the 40s for teenagers to gather after a movie or to meet friends there for ice cream.  I found an online photo of the counter from that era and there is a sign for Wagar’s Ice Cream at 35 cents a pint. What a deal that seems like today!

I had a conversation a few years ago with Helen Carpenter Kinsman, daughter of Bob Carpenter, the owner of Carpenter’s Pharmacy. She was reminiscing about the “Telephone Sundae” that Carpenter’s offered. She thinks it got that name because so many telephone operators, who worked downtown, used to come in and get this version of a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream or marshmallow, nuts and a cherry. I remember that an older woman who manned that counter did not have a lot of patience with me and my friends. We wanted to get every bit of our milkshake so we slurped it from the bottom of the glass with our straws. Of course, it made an annoying noise and we were appropriately told that we sounded like pigs!

I remember also having a conversation not too long ago with the late Winnie McClallen, who owned McClallen’s Pharmacy, with her husband, Charlie. She told me that her boys used to make sandwiches for the lunch counter before they left for school. It was truly a family affair.

It is hard to connect that some people were getting prescriptions filled while others were getting their stomachs filled!
Today malls have food courts where you can take a break from shopping. But in my day, you could do that at Woolworth’s or Fishman’s. Both variety stores carried a little bit of everything, from pots and pans to clothes and even gold fish and parakeets. You could spend a lot of time browsing in this type of store. Because downtown had numerous places to shop, a couple of hours could pass before you knew it. If noon time rolled around while you were browsing, you could head to the counter of either Woolworth’s or Fishman’s and get something to eat. Woolworth’s was always my favorite spot. I remember that the counter staff wore uniforms and hairnets. Their menu offered a variety of sandwiches, soups and desserts. There were very few empty stools.

If you were the kid who got a little too loud or silly while enjoying a treat at Woolworth’s the store manager would pass by with a look that made you behave instantly.

Rutland is a relatively small place where everyone seems to know everyone else. I knew this was true when I ended up working in an office at City Hall back in the 80s. My office was right next to the former Woolworth’s manager whose stern look had kept us all in line! He was the late Vern Richards, Rutland City tax collector. He got a laugh out of the fact that I had found him intimidating 30 years earlier.

I found a Woolworth’s menu online from the 1950s. I don’t know which state it was from but the prices were probably about the same everywhere. An egg salad sandwich was 30 cents, a tulip sundae was a quarter and a slice of apple pie was 15 cents. I am sure that was the going price back “in the day” but it certainly seems like a bargain in present times.

Downtown lunch counters were a fun part of its history. The fact that they could be found in the same stores as prescriptions, gold fish and parakeets makes them truly unique.

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