Nostalgia certainly sweeps across us this time of year. Familiar songs, smells and scenes fill our senses and make December, well, go ahead and say it — It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Most of what causes us to embrace the holidays is rooted in our childhoods.
As adults, we try to transfer those warm feelings and experiences to our own children and grandchildren hoping they, too, will enjoy the same elements of the season. The ornaments, the parades, hot chocolate, bell-ringing, children singing, tree decorating, fireplace gazing — it’s all part of the picture we look forward to viewing.
The great dilemma is making something so familiar remain relevant.
In Summerville, a business on the corner of Main Street and Richardson Avenue is still both familiar and relevant. Guerin’s Pharmacy, established in 1871, is the oldest operating pharmacy in South Carolina.
The outside facade still resembles an old building, but inside, it’s the charm, character and friendly service that keeps this business continually connecting with its customers. Even though there are longtime patrons who habitually visit, younger customers also gather at Guerin’s after school.
With large chain drug stores on almost every corner, often across the street from each other, how has this little store on Main Street continued to not just survive, but thrive?
Can I help you?
Guerin’s is now owned and operated by Barbara Dunning. Her father, Charles, died in 2015, and Barbara took over. The Dunnings bought the business from the Guerin family in 1975. Charles was a delivery boy and later a pharmacist who worked at Guerin’s.
Even though the Dunnings have been in charge the past 40 years, they never changed the name on the sign. They also never attempted to alter the spirit of the place that envelopes a curious customer who enters the front door.
“We would never change the name,” says Barbara, who worked there as a pharmacist herself. “We wouldn’t even consider it — this is Guerin’s.”
Henry Guerin was the founder. He was a Charleston physician and a former Confederate Army major. His son, Joseph, later joined the family business and was in the store in 1886 when Charleston’s great earthquake shook the Lowcountry.
Beyond the prescriptions and general items one might expect to find in the corner drug store, Guerin’s seems to offer just a little more. At the soda fountain, schoolchildren still order a hot dog or a milkshake. It’s also possible to purchase an ice cream cone — one scoop or two?
The store has provided part-time and full-time employment for any number of town teenagers or pharmacists in training.
Peggy Neal has worked in the store for 38 years. Ellen Owans has worked at Guerin’s for 21 years, and her mother was an employee before that.
The primary reason this store remains relevant is not its inventory, it’s the way it treats its customers. From the moment one walks in the front door and smells the hot dogs, there’s a familiar and welcome feeling that seems to say "we’re glad you stopped by."
Relevant, not a relic
In this day of drive-thru convenience and text messages that alert us to awaiting prescriptions, there’s something strangely engaging about an old store, still doing business with old-fashioned principles.
Recently, the Summerville Preservation Society erected a historic marker outside Guerin’s telling those who pass about the store’s legacy. Charleston has plenty such markers in various spots, but rarely do you stop to read about history and then get to walk inside the very place that’s being honored.
At Guerin’s, some customers have personal charge accounts that go back more than 50 years. Grandparents set up accounts that allow grandchildren to order a milkshake.
Apothecary bottles of every shape and size line the wall above the cabinets and near the fountain bar, root beer and orange sodas are kept on ice.
Maybe one day the property will be far more valuable than the business that occupies that corner. Some call that progress.
This is a time of year we celebrate magical and wonderful moments. The next time you’re driving through Summerville, keep in mind that there’s a little corner drug store on Main Street that reminds us all that bigger is not always better and that how we react to and treat each other is still a business model that’s successful.
Don’t believe me? Stop and read the marker. Better yet, go inside.