A Visit to Belew Drugs, Last of the Old-Time Pharmacies

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

There are certain places that take you back to a time when people knew who you were, remembered your name, where you came from, and where you were going. Belew Drugs, in the Broadway Shopping Center and now celebrating its 50th anniversary, is one of those places.

Last summer, when I went in to pick up my meds, a young woman of about 23 waited on me. She was small, blonde, pretty, and efficient.

“Your rings are beautiful,” I said, commenting on her very large engagement diamond and wedding band.

“Thank you,” she said, without looking up.

“How long have you been married?” I asked.

“Two months,” she replied, now smiling with a purity and innocence that I envy.

“I bet you were a beautiful bride,” I said, and she smiled even more radiantly.

“Thank you,” she said, all the while filling my prescriptions with slender, deft fingers.

“Did you have a large wedding?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she replied, now looking up at me. “We decided to keep it simple and small. Just family and a few close friends.”

“How many?” I asked.

“About 200,” she answered pertly, and then it was my turn to smile. She looked at her ring fondly, then back at me. “We’re still in love,” she added, and for a second I wondered what it is like to be her—so young, so untainted, so sure of herself and her life ahead. I returned to myself as she rang up my meds and handed them to me with a smile and a professional, Southern farewell: “Come back and see us.”

In the 10 years or so I have been going to Belew, I have never heard any of the employees say a harsh word or even give a stern look, either to each other or to their clients. Aside from their courtesy, Belew is cheaper than chain pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS. Once, a few months ago, when I didn’t have the money to get my prescription, I asked the owner, David Belew, if he could front me two or three pills until my check came.

“It would be a lot easier if I just fronted you the whole prescription,” and this he did on the spot, taking the money out of his own pocket and paying for my prescription until I could pay it myself.

One of the few family-owned businesses of its kind in Knoxville, every person who works at Belew Drugs is treated as family. “Are you a member of the family?” I asked a woman who greets customers as they come in, and who must surely be at least 75. She glanced around the room with a warm smile and said, “One way or another, we are all family.”

People just seem to come here to work and never leave. Grady, the store manager, has worked at Belew Drugs for over 35 years. On the walls are family pictures, large and small, black and white, and in color: a child just born; a toddler in a playsuit, romping in a front yard; kids graduating high school or college, accepting diplomas; a wedding, the couple looking raptly in one another’s eyes.

Belew Drugs is more than a pharmacy. There is a mastectomy boutique, for women who have had one or both breasts removed, and natural-looking wigs for people who have had to undergo chemotherapy; it’s managed by Melinda, a pretty, intelligent woman whose ease with herself promotes confidence in others. They also have a knapsack program that distributes school supplies for children whose parents might not be able to afford them. Last year they delivered these knapsacks to three different schools.

And, of course, there are things to buy at Belew: greeting cards for 15 cents, diabetic shoes, old-fashioned canisters of candy, a variety of candles, a dollar rack with piggy banks. The most interesting discovery for me were long wax-paper tapers that, when you light them with a match, are guaranteed to clean out your ears. I decided to pass on that one.

As I gathered my medicine and notebook together to leave the store, I heard a chorus behind me: “Goodbye, Donna. We’ll see you next time.” And for a few moments, I felt like a special person. When I looked back, I saw the young bride waving.

“I hope you stay in love forever,” I called out to her.

“That’s our plan,” she said, and I feel certain they will.

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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