The Avalon Drug Store
On a Saturday morning in January, 1971, three days before the inauguration of Governor Preston Smith and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, the then-Assistant US Attorney Theo Pinson strolled into Houston’s Avalon Drug Store after a toot on the town, a bit disheveled but still resplendent in his midnight blue tuxedo, to keep a fateful meeting with lawyer Morton Susman.
The two men selected a table in the Avalon’s dining area, ordered coffees, and began discussing the final legal maneuverings involving Susman’s client, one Frank Sharp.
The following Monday afternoon the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) filed its suit against Sharp, charging him with a wheelbarrow full of grievous and greedy crimes against the state, and, within a week, politicians and workers at the state capitol were running about as if they had been sprayed with methedrine.
The ramifications are still being felt. The ruling troika of Smith, Barnes, and Mutscher was sent packing; Dolph Briscoe was elected and is running again, this time for four years; and the trials continue in Dallas.
Mon Dieu! Thus the tossing of the coin before the kickoff of Texas’ own Watergate caper took place in an hour, amidst kids and moms, hippies and hung-over swells, mechanics and maids, all in a day’s activities at the Avalon.
The Avalon is not your ordinary drugstore. In this Age of Unfeel and standardization, the chain drugstore is taking over, like the chain motel. It is a standardized product, offering the customer a guarantee of what he will find wherever he goes. But it is an anonymous place, decorated in minor-league chic, run by faceless, nameless employees who offer you efficiency, nothing more.
There are these feelings about the new drugstores you cannot escape: that the place was built the night before, that the pharmacists should be wearing conical hats like Nostradamus with the embroidered planets and zodiac signs, that if you were blindfolded, nine times out of ten you could not name the drugstore you were in.
Most important, there is nothing about the newer drugstores that suggests their counterparts still existing in small towns throughout Texas. There is no feeling that the store is the owner’s personal fief. You will be taken care of, but you will leave feeling uncared for.
Dr. Denton Cooley and wife feel cared for; they have been Avalon regulars for fifteen years. So do two newer customers, John and Nellie Connally. So do A. J. Foyt, Al Shepard, Fred and Mac Hofheinz, Judge Kenneth Judice, John and Katsy Mecom, Lloyd and B. A. Bentsen, Red Adair, Bud Adams, and a small army of loyalists who would gladly face the Götterdämmerung twice daily rather than move more than walking distance from the Avalon.
Permanence explains part of Avalon’s magic. Built in 1937 at its present location at the corner of Kirby and Westheimer, the Avalon opened its doors under the careful guidance of Mr. Heldt Griner, who continued to run the show with a strong hand gloved in mail until he retired to his farm near Mt. Vernon in 1972. Griner needed $3000 to break even that first month and made it by sixteen dollars. Suffice it to say that the store takes in more than $3016 a month today to meet the payroll of 45 full and part-time employees, pay the bills, and show a handsome profit.
As loyal as the customers are the employees. Francis Reece, bookkeeper, 23 years; Pearl Crouse, bookkeeper, 26 years; Robert Anderson, stock manager, 28 years; Betty Draper, cosmetician, 23 years; Freddie Benjamin at the fountain, more than 20 years; James Cargill, fountain manager, 17 years; co-owner Jim Herring, 18 years; Ida Matthews, waitress, more than 16 years.
“Ida Matthews is an extraordinary person,” pharmacist and co-owner Bill Morris explains: “Ida knows whose kids are in trouble. She talks and visits with many of the customers about their problems as if she was a psychiatrist which, of course, she is. She knows the special diets and special ways our regulars prefer their lunch; she never misses a day and never complains.
“Ida’s good friend, Mrs. Denton Cooley, saw to it that her husband operated on Ida’s husband and kids who suffer from congenital heart trouble,” said Morris as he continued talking about his prize employee.
From 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. seven days a week, all year long except Christmas, the Avalon does business. Almost every morning at 6:45, Mr. Morgan Davis, retired chairman of the board of Exxon, and his wife arrive for breakfast. Close behind are scores of smartly dressed young men who grab a bite before hurrying down Westheimer to continue their own pursuits up the corporate ladder.
By mid-morning, the boys from DeMontrond Buick across the street come in for coffee and a smoke. By noon, the rush is on for the lunch specialty of the day. Thursday’s chicken and dumplings is a clear favorite, although the best-selling vegetable is squash, usually with roast beef on Wednesday. Hamburgers outsell everything.
The ladies who gather at the Avalon for lunch from their nearby, posh River Oaks homes for the most part are lean, prosperous, and fiercely normal. A group of four usually means three are counseling the fourth on whether to divorce or not. If the fourth’s husband should see this quiet but serious tete-a-tete, he knows that he figures prominently in this discussion, and lunch elsewhere might be better today.
Dates, parties, schedules for the deb season are plotted over hamburgers and Dr Peppers. So are Junior League conferences, museum drives, new affairs, and new businesses.
The Avalon is the ganglia of River Oaks cosmetic gossip: who is dyeing her hair what color, whose kids are taking up false eyelashes and lipstick as a way of life, whose chin has been lifted, whose breasts inflated, whose buttocks restructured—seemingly frivolous but important facts that relieve the anonymity of urban life.
One feels a sense of community at the Avalon like a discernible pulse. An active mother of two tells of first arriving as a newlywed from the East: “My husband gave me the money for a house. It was more than adequate in those days and we could have moved to Memorial or Tanglewood except for one stipulation. It must be within walking distance to the Avalon.
“They take care of you as a human being, not as a charge account number. They will help you pick out your presents at Christmas and deliver. All the kids get free candy at Halloween for tricks and treats. If you get sick in the night, you can call up Bill or Jim and get medicine right away.”
The Avalon is a family place, all right. Mr. Griner once took all the copies of Life magazine with Joe Namath hugging Ann-Margret on the cover off the stand because it was too racy. The ferret-faced teenagers will look in vain for Penthouse, Playboy or Oui, as will adults who scan the shelves for sanitary napkins or prophylactics. The latter two items are discreetly kept out of sight, beneath the counter in the back.
In its way, the Avalon Drugstore is as important in the life of the city as the hospital or police department. It is rare in a city like Houston to feel a sense of neighborhood. Montrose qualifies, perhaps. Rarer still is a business where customers feel they can momentarily forget the wearying middle-class restraints and poise, the circumscribed politenesses of people who have face to lose and positions to keep up, and be genuinely friendly. Such a place is the Avalon.