A look back at Oriental Drugs, a fountain of Milwaukee memories
At the corner of Farwell and North avenues in Milwaukee today, you can get a cappuccino, a plate of cheesy pasta, sweet potato empanadas or a variety of other foods and drinks from about nine micro-restaurants at the Crossroads Collective food hall.
But time travel back to that East Side corner starting nearly a century ago, from 1928 through 1995, and you’d catch a whole different vibe.
The spot was Oriental Drugs, the subject of this week’s Bubbler Talk. It was a diner-style lunch counter, a drugstore, and a hardware and variety store that’s woven into the fabric of Milwaukee lore. There’s a documentary about it, a sculpture of its lunch counter, "I’m hooked on Oriental Drugs" t-shirts and an entire Facebook group dedicated to sharing memories.
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Brooke Maroldi filmed the documentary back in the '90s and calls the spot an example of controlled chaos.
“Because there's there was so much movement going on, there's the counter, of course; the guys, you know, flipping burgers in the background; customers coming and going. Way in the back is the pharmacy, in between is the hardware in the grocery store. I mean, there's sections that work in this harmony, but everything's moving all the time. So, I think controlled chaos is the way I would put it,” she assesses.
Here are a few first-hand accounts of patrons describing the marvels of the place. Like this woman describing what she could buy there: “From your film to mailing a letter to buying a plant to getting a card for somebody's anniversary to a few screws to fix something to a shower curtain. I mean, you can get anything you want here.”
A main attraction was the lunch counter. People could order anything from poached eggs to chocolate malts.
A post on the Oriental Drugs Facebook page describes the diner-like-counter as the star attraction, saying: “Along with the simple Americana food it was chance for the rich to rub elbows with the poor, the punk to break bread with the stodgy old lady, and for all the workers to feel like a dysfunctional but affectionate family.”
There were reasonable prices, too. Here’s a customer in the documentary pointing out his cup of coffee: “By the way, this cost me 85 cents. But I got 15 cups. So, it’s cheap, you know, price is right!”
If you never set foot inside of the spot, the documentary gives you a real feel for it. But there’s still a mystique. Nearly 27 years after it closed for good, Bubbler Talk question asker Nicole Grumley wants to know: "Why does the Oriental Pharmacy hold such a special place in Milwaukeeans' hearts?"
Maroldi’s documentary holds a key to the answer. In it, Julia Nelson gets to the real allure of the place and says Oriental Drugs warms people's hearts. "There's not too many places anymore where you can have ... connections with people," she shares.
The lunch counter was known for its u-shapes, which compelled people to sit across from or next to each other.
Claire Nilsson added this in the documentary: “Most places, you know, you have to have your own separate table on everything. You know, nobody wants to be near each other attached to each other. And here, you sit right next to strangers and start having conversations. It's great. It's a real mixing place.”
Dave Luhrssen, who is a longtime Milwaukee film critic and contributor to WUWM, is in the documentary too and says geography played a role.
“Milwaukee, I think, was very fortunate to have held on to a place this unique as long as it did because there is still a neighborhood in this area, a neighborhood that's not reliant upon automobiles, a neighborhood where people can walk into a place like this or even take their bicycle in here and get around,” he says.
Luhrssen says it’d be hard to imagine something like Oriental Drugs in a suburb. He assesses there’s so much space between people in suburbs that community never congeals.
“And East Side in Milwaukee, this neighborhood, has always been a real neighborhood. It remains one,” he notes. “The importance was that this [Oriental Drugs] was really the nexus, the nerve center, of it.”
The era also made a difference, says Brooke Maroldi, the filmmaker who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She notes Oriental Drugs was around before the internet was big, before cell phones. She says if it reopened today, it might not be the same.
“Even if you did have those kinds of counters, where people are sitting next to each other or across from each other, would they be talking to each other? Or would they just be looking at their phones?," Maroldi wonders.
One thing that’s been updated since the Oriental Drugs era is the use of the word “oriental.” As WBEZ writes: “While the original name was intended to convey an aura of exotic and mystical splendor, it’s not how it’s perceived today. … Instead, people often today view the term ‘oriental’ as a Western-centric term that defines people of Asian descent by patronizing stereotypes.”
The same could be said about the use of cartoonish lettering to spell out “Oriental Variety and Hardware” or “prescriptions.”
Milwaukee still has a beloved theater with that name, for which the drug store/lunch counter was named. But Chicago has renamed its Oriental Theater. And former President Barack Obama struck the word from federal laws.
As documented in Maroldi’s film, large national chains like Osco opened up several pharmacies in the city in the mid-'90s. That pushed Oriental Drugs and other independent pharmacies out of the market.
They just couldn’t compete with the wholesale prices Osco got and advantages like door-to-door drug delivery.
Hy Eglash served as a pharmacist and Oriental Drugs owner from 1966 until it closed. In the documentary, he marvels at the loyalty of the customers.
“I honestly feel I'm letting them down by closing. I just can't express enough my appreciation to both the customers and the employees for loyalty and their dedication. It's just been wonderful. And I just hate to the break this up," he says.
Eglash is now 89 years old. He spends his winters in California with family, but just got back to Milwaukee in the beginning of April.
I met him at the corner of Farwell and North where he took a stab at answering why the East Side spot was special.
“Well, it was many things to many people,” he surmises. “It was a place that, for instance, on Thanksgiving, when many restaurants were closed, the Oriental was always open for a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember we used to give a complimentary slice of pumpkin pie to anyone who had a Thanksgiving meal here.”
Eglash says the place just reliably had something for everyone. “I remember, one customer telling me that on a Sunday night, his fuse blew out and he had no electricity in his home. He said every hardware store in the city was closed, except for Oriental Hardware. So, he was able to get a fuse to take home and have lights again.”
He recalls in 1969 when Vietnam War protesters broke all the windows on the north side of the store. All his windows had to be boarded up with plywood.
“And I had some young customers,” recalls Eglash, “I think many of them were students at UW-Milwaukee that came up to me and said, ‘You know, we feel very badly about what happened to your store. And if you don't mind, we would like to paint the plywood. And do we have permission to do so?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I said, ‘Uh, go ahead and do so.’”
Eglash supplied the paint and the painting supplies. “So, we had some beautiful artwork,” he says.
Eglash doesn’t know of any place in Milwaukee like Oriental Drugs anymore. He says, to start, there are very few independent stores and the idea of pharmacies with lunch counters or soda fountains has faded away.
We walk into the Crossroads Collective through the revolving door, his first time visiting the food hall.
I point out the options, “So we’ve got, over there a pasta bar, there’s Peruvian street food, coffee shop, there’s a bar in the middle ..."
Visiting there begs the question: Do things just need to move on and develop or is Eglash sad that Oriental Drugs doesn’t exist anymore?
The answer is both.
“It certainly doesn't resemble at all like what I remember,” says Eglash. “But I think they've done a wonderful job here as far as making it the food court. I think it's great.”
But Eglash admits he misses what once was. “Well, I am sad, really,” he admits. “I, I think that if Oriental Drugs would still be here, I think it would probably still be a popular place.”
He recalls people meeting at the lunch counter, eventually going on dates, and then getting married and having kids.
Eglash remembers working during heavy snowstorms, “and you walk into the drugstore and in the lobby area you would see four or five pairs of skis that were left there where people would actually ski up to the pharmacy and leave your skis and come into to eat.”
Eglash is holding on to his fond memories of things like that — like a good number of other people in Milwaukee.
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