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Successful Rx: Dispensing a Sense of Community : Druggist Harold Marcus and his wife run their Huntington Beach pharmacy in old-fashioned style.


HUNTINGTON BEACH — I can't decide which is more depressing: new strip malls designed without soul or vision from the get-go, primed for faceless dry cleaners and yogurt shops, or old '50s and '60s strip malls from which the hope has slowly been leeched by years of declining business.

When I was small, these then-new little centers abounded with as much life, mystery and stuff as a kid with 75 cents in his pocket could hope to explore. Like so many other things built in the rocket exhaust of the space age, the design of the centers seemed to lean optimistically into the future, and, being a California innovation, they had a casual, if parking-lot ugly, charm. Now, though, these centers don't so much lean as they do teeter on the brink of oblivion.

There is such a center at Springdale Street and Edinger Avenue in Huntington Beach, and time has not been kind. The buildings that once were the center's "anchors"--a Toy City and Bank of America--now sit vacant, leaving the small independent businesses remaining to fend for themselves against the super-stores and mega-malls.

In the midst of this center sits the Springdale Country Drugstore, which clearly hasn't caught on yet that it's supposed to be miserable.

Remember the Twilight Zone episode where a progress-plagued modern man gets off the train at a stop called Willoughby, and he is suddenly transported to an idyllic, innocent turn-of-the-century small town?

This drugstore is more than a little like that: Its shelves and counters are all warm wood antiques. Much of the rent-paying display space isn't even taken up with items for sale, but with eye-tickling nostrums and remedies from another age, such as an ancient bottle labeled "Dr. J.H. McLean's Volcanic Oil Liniment."

Yet, even with its actual for-sale stock depleted by the Christmas and post-Christmas rush, there is still a miraculous clutter to the place, abounding with items from pricey hand-painted Limoges boxes to hand-dipped chocolate truffles. Everywhere you look, there is a beguiling attention to design and detail. And everyone there is so darned nice . The druggist knows most of his customers by name, and on this particular day--the last of the old year--some of them were coming by apparently just to wish him a happy new year and shake his hand. "You really feel like you're home here. They put out such an effort," says customer Patricia Bandy, who has been coming to the drugstore for years.

It is indeed the oldest drugstore in Huntington Beach, which only dates it back 32 years. It didn't start looking really old until 11 years ago when it was bought by Harold Marcus and his wife, Karen. Marcus had been the store's pharmacist for a dozen years then, and says he and his wife "thought we should make a statement. But instead of upgrading it to look more modern, we downgraded it to the antique look. I think in our hearts we'd like to go back to the old concept of a country store and be the center of the community."

Marcus prefers the term druggist over pharmacist. "There's no distinction between them, except in my mind. I've got the doctorate in pharmacy, but when people ask I say I'm a druggist, because it's old-fashioned," he says. At 50, he looks a bit like a settled-down version of Peter Gabriel, and speaks like he lives in a Frank Capra movie, where business people are driven by a vision instead of the bottom line.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Marcus' first high school job in the 1950s was at a neighborhood drugstore. It was his goal to be a teacher. "But my employer encouraged me to enter an essay contest on why I wanted to become a pharmacist. I did it more or less to please him, but I won the contest. That gave me a scholarship for my first year at USC and determined where my education was going.

"I've never regretted it. This has become a very difficult business, but as long as it deals with people and the community, I feel real good about it and I'll stick with it."

Marcus and his wife--they were junior high sweethearts and have been married for 27 years--started the redesign with 1800s English apothecary fixtures they purchased at auction. Every year since, they've made changes in the decor and merchandise to keep it interesting.

When they travel, it's not unusual for them to hit 30 or 40 antique shops in a day. Each January the Marcuses go to a huge gift show in Atlanta to scare up the "niche market" and cottage industry items in which they specialize. In the past couple of years, they've begun carrying country-style clothing and diabetic candies.

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