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In the age of four dollar coffee drinks and drive-through pharmacies, the soda fountains and dry good stores of the past seem to be the stuff of movies and distant memory. In this installment of our local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us the story of one Ozarks store that keeps this tradition alive.
In Ava, Missouri, four young missionaries in suits sit on the red-topped chrome stools that wrap around a white counter. Behind it, four women in red aprons bustle around, preparing for more lunch hour traffic. One of the missionaries, who goes by “Elder Iviie” in this town, has been visiting Ava Drug regularly for the three months he’s been in Ava.
“I like coming here for the people, the people that work here. They’re really friendly towards us...usually. They’re really fun to hang around and talk with. And there’s cheap ice cream.”
A sign above the jukebox reads “Ice cold Coca-Cola is always 5 cents.” And at Ava Drug, they mean it. When David Norman restored the soda fountain in 2005, he also brought back nickel ice cream, coffee, and soda. These were the prices at the soda fountain when Ava Drug first opened…generations ago.
The drug store was built in 1950 by David Norman’s father and grandfather, along with another local doctor. They expanded in 1953. Several years later, a fire destroyed the store. They were able to rebound in the same year.
“So the store was built back and what you see today is as closely as I could get it to what it looked like in 1958.”
Norman says he had misgivings about becoming a pharmacist like his grandfather and father before him, but eventually, he decided to carry on the family tradition.
“I got out of Pharmacy school in 1967, [and] came back. And decided the soda fountain was terribly old fashioned and wasn’t making any money and I had a hundred reasons why we didn’t need it, none of which my dad agreed with. But eventually in 1982 we took the soda fountain out.”
In 1991 Norman sold the store…but ended up buying it back 12 years later.
“I knew all along that taking the soda fountain had been a mistake. Unfortunately, my dad never lived long enough to say, ‘I told you so.’”
He had taken dozens of detailed photos of the soda fountain area—and he used those photos when restoring it to its original look.
“All I knew about a soda fountain was it had ice cream and cokes and my girlfriend was there. That was it. Well, I know a lot more about it now.”
Fellers Fixtures in Springfield had custom made the booths for the store in ’58, and Norman was able to find all the specs for the fittings he wanted to bring back to Ava Drug. When the counter first re-opened, Norman reinstituted the original prices for coffee, soda, and ice cream as a kind of promotion for the first three months. It’s been seven years since the grand re-opening, and you can still get a nickel ice cream cone.
Ava Drug has been a fixture in the Ava community for nearly 62 years, and it’s easy to see why. This is a generational business. Virginia Linder has worked at Ava Drug since she was in high school. She started in 1952. Her daughter also works here. She says since the store has so many ties to the community, it’s able to provide something valuable to its customers: familiarity.
“We treat our people different than you would if it was a town that you didn’t know anybody. Half of the customers come in and they have to hug you, ’cause they’re glad to see you.”
“It is comforting to know when you come in that I knew your mother and dad, and I’m old enough now that I may have known your grandparents, see? And you may have a child. If I’m going to help you, it’s a lot easier if I know you.”
These days, Ava Drug is a hub of activity. Folks come in to pick up their prescriptions, shop for Band-Aids or toothpaste, grab a cup of coffee, and visit with their pharmacist or waitress. Over the past 60 years, this store has undergone drastic physical changes as the worlds of pharmacology and retail have evolved. But it has retained its most valuable amenity: its connection to families and the community. The 5-cent ice-cream is really just the cherry on top.
For KSMU’s sense of place, I’m Emma Wilson.