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Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : Last Prescription : Newhall’s First Pharmacist Calls It Quits After 52 Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

NE-7 was the number to dial in Newhall when a railroad or gas company worker needed his medicine or a rancher needed a vaccine or serum to treat hog cholera.

Since that first phone was installed at the Newhall Pharmacy in 1951, the old downtown district and the store have changed considerably, but Ralph Williams’ work habits and business practices have survived.

But after 52 years at the corner of San Fernando Road and Market Street, the town’s first pharmacist, now 86, will fill his last prescription today.

Carrying the costs of Medicare prescriptions, steadily losing business to larger chain stores and paying insurance costs and the salary of another pharmacist forced the decision, said Jim Davy, Williams’ son-in-law who has helped run the business.

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Williams is retiring. The pharmacy counter will be closed and the store’s gift shop will be relocated down the street.

In its heyday, the pharmacy was the social center of the small town. William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and other Western movie stars used to hang around the soda fountain swapping stories and waiting for the other phone to ring, remembers Susan Davy, Williams’ daughter.

Williams installed a second phone so studios could contact the actors who hung out waiting for work.

Every morning, Williams would travel to Burbank to pick up ice cream, strap it to the side of the car with rope and haul it back. He also kept a full-sized freezer stocked with medical supplies for local farmers.

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These days, the faces have changed, and traffic on San Fernando Road whizzes by the old pharmacy to new shopping centers and housing developments.

“It’s kinda like the orange trees that blossomed all over the Valley,” Williams said, reminiscing, “just a slow decline.”

The courthouse is long gone, the old jail is an insurance office and the actors who patronized the soda fountain have been replaced by young men who kill time playing video games at the coin laundry while waiting for day work.

Lawyers and judges frequented the soda fountain, making it a favored lunch spot.

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“There were more deals cut at the soda fountain at that time than in the courtroom,” Susan Davy said.

Williams kept a supply of Band-Aids, cotton swabs, cough syrup and aspirin at home for the occasions when customers would drop by his house after the store closed. His customers, whom he knew by name, could always get credit with a handshake.

“There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t walk out with their medicine--even if they didn’t have the money,” Susan Davy said.

As the region began to grow and shopping malls began to spring up all over town, customers began to shop at the chain stores that could offer lower prices because they purchased medicine in such large quantities.

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“When they opened Old Orchard (shopping center), they took $500 a day right out the door,” said Williams, seated on a small stool behind the prescription counter.

“That’s what they’re good for, knocking the little guy right out of the business,” said Williams, sitting cross-legged.

The 1971 Sylmar earthquake shook the business from its foundation and slid the second floor of the building to where it leaned over the sidewalk, Jim Davy said. The business never fully recovered.

“I lost 40 years of work that morning,” Williams said.

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While the store was repaired, Williams built a shelter inside an old blacksmith’s shop and kept the prescription narcotics at the bank until they could be kept safely at the shop.

About a year later the store tried to rebound with a different look, combining the traditional greeting cards and prescription service by stocking the wood laminated shelves with novelty and gag gifts, figurines, stuffed animals--even lighted Betty Boop figures. As time went on, Jim Davy added adult gag gifts, jukeboxes and antique slot machines to the stock.

The slot machines that lined the counters and shelves in the mid-1970s earned the store a measure of national attention because of the collection of rare machines now sought as collectibles.

“People had them stashed away in barns and other places after they became illegal in 1955 and we started buying, refurbishing and selling them,” he said.

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At the new shop, Davy showed off a restored 1946 Wurlitzer jukebox in an old oak case. Two liquid streams encased in glass tubes outline the face of the jukebox.

When the pharmacy closes, Davy will continue to sell the oddball novelty gifts, antique slot machines and jukeboxes from Fun Inc., a new store on San Fernando Road in the next block.

Williams will tend to his wife, Harriet, who has suffered from a long illness, marking a profound change in his life.

The last time he missed a day of work was about three years ago when he had a pacemaker placed in his chest.

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While the pharmacy has remained open and continued to serve the community, it seems the days of soda fountains, singing cowboys and the independent community store have faded from view.

“We’ve just been here too long. All of our regular customers have either moved away or died,” Susan Davy said.


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