Closed, July 2000
(This history of a bygone Russian Hill institution was written by Russian Hill Neighbors VP Jack Casford in Spring, 1997. Home Drug Company has since closed, and the site is occupied by a gift and home furnishings shop. The stained glass signs have been preserved.)
For historical longevity, Home Drug Co. rates second only to the celebrated cable cars that rumble through the intersection of Hyde and Union. Anchoring the northwest corner, this venerable and much-loved institution has provided hands-on, neighborly pharmacy and drugstore sundries since Merle C. Smith started it in 1911-1912.
The Victorian-style shingled building was built quite soon after the Earthquake and Fire, about 1908. Three generations of the same family continued to operate it: first Merle Smith, known as “Doc” as many pharmacists in the U.S were known; then his nephew, Edwin Merle Glasgow (from the late 1920’s until his retirement in 1953); and then his sons, Ted and Don. As boys (born in San Francisco and raised in Burlingame), they clerked and made deliveries for their father and great-uncle.
Ted went to pharmacy school after obtaining his degree from Oregon State, and took over Home Drug in 1956. His younger brother, Don, got a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy from University of the Pacific in Stockton, and joined his brother in 1969. The brothers retired quietly in 1995, but they still own the shingled building with a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. The present pharmacist, Eugene Malmquist, who holds a pharmacy degree from the University of Colorado, leases the space from the Glasgows.
Malmquist is very sensitive to the historic and traditional nature of Home Drug. He has done some remodeling and upgrading, particularly in the back, elevated area where the pharmacy operations take place. He recently removed signs that once held neon tubing and revealed the beautiful green, white and amber stained glass HOME DRUG CO. signs over each of the from display windows.
In the basement, fragments from the past remain. Boxes hold scores of brown glass bottles with original Home Drug Labels: Arsenic, Cinchona Bark (quinine), Mercury Bichloride, White Cyanide, and various bromides. Copies of old licenses and certificates remain, authorizing the store to sell prophylactic products; also a Medical Spirits Stamp tax receipt; a document called Retail Dealer in Opium; a permit to sell coca leaves and to mix certain laxatives; a stamp authorizing the use of Cocaine, Quinine Sulfate, Oil of Wintergreen, Pilocarpine Hydrochloride.
Other boxes hold old prescription slips, back to 1917, from physicians all over San Francisco, who listed their home telephone numbers and addresses. They scribbled their orders using “apothecary indications,” or Latin abbreviations for amounts and directions on how to use, and symbols giving the quantities, expressed in grams, drams, grains, etc.
A dusty, moribund Underwood portable typewriter tilts on the shelf above a number of old cash registers, from the oldest with keys, bell, and a pull-out drawer, to early electric versions.
Several scales – shallow bowls of dull silver metal with hanging weights and counter-weights – accumulate dust and rust, while two sets of marble mortar-and-pestles recently made their way back to the pharmacy department for display.
A venerable black machine called an “Automatic Electric Carbonator” sits forgotten in a dark corner. It was used to add the carbonation to the syrup for Coca-Cola.
Home Drug Co. briefly had three stores; the original, at 1200 Hyde, a second called Home Drug Co. No. 2 at Hyde and Jackson, and Home Drug Co. No. 3, at Pine and Jones. “Doc” Smith was in partnership with a Mr. Seebold and a third man whose name is lost in memory. Smith bought out Nos. 2 and 3 at some point. Home Drug bought out Alhambra Drugs, which for many years operated at the northeast corner of Green and Polk. It even had a tiny branch post office in the back, manned by a cranky clerk who posted a large sign announcing the services it did NOT provide: “No Packages Accepted!”
Home Drug used to be open seven days a week, and deliveries were made by motorcycle. Crime did not touch them, except for one remembered break-in (unsuccessful – the narcotics safe remained untouched) and one walk-in weaponless robbery.
Two former customers, who once lived together on Greenwich Street, were O.J. Simpson and a pretty, slim girl in her teens named Nicole Brown.
Don and Ted see each other frequently (one lives on the Peninsula and one lives in the East Bay). They don’t miss the commute, and the pressure of work, but they do miss the customers and the neighborhood. Certainly the neighborhood missed them when they “disappeared.”
But Malmquist continues the tradition of personal, friendly service. Even his fluency in German comes in handy with the scores of tourists who pass the corner looking for “The Crooked Street” and Fisherman’s Wharf. And he says Home Drug now provides prescriptions at the low proce allowed by insurance companies under most plans. He insists they are competitive with Walgreens!
With Home Drug dating back to 1911-12, the venerable Searchlight Market (also dating arraign 1912), Swensen’s (1948), and Vern’s Shoe Craft (in the 1950’s), the intersection of Hyde and Union remains a historic center for Russian Hill.