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Belk: An Auburn store with a rich history

Belk: An Auburn store with a rich history

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Belk: An Auburn store with a rich history

Mary Belk 

Who would have guessed the two-story wooden structure that became Toomer’s Drugs would become a nationally known attraction? Built in 1851, the store’s backstory is a rich and colorful history.

During the Civil War, the Auburn University Chapel served as an Army hospital. The store supplied medicine to wounded Confederate soldiers. Later, federal troops marched through Auburn and destroyed the drugs, but they left the building standing. It was sold in 1875 for $40.

In the late 1890s, a young pharmacist named Shell Toomer wanted to buy the drugstore. John Reese, an African-American man who made his living hauling students’ trunks in his one-mule wagon, heard that Toomer needed to borrow money to go into the drugstore business. So Reese brought Toomer several fruit jars stuffed with $500 cash. You know the rest of the story. The loan helped Toomer buy the store named for him.

Around the turn of the century, the building was brick veneered, and Auburn’s first concrete sidewalk was poured beside Toomer’s Drugs in 1912. By the next year, the drugstore had become a favorite spot for API students to take their girlfriends for coke dates. They dubbed the marble soda fountain “Hugh’s Bar” after Hugh Tamplin, the soda jerk.

The growing popularity of cars began causing danger to pedestrians in front of the popular drugstore, so Auburn’s first traffic light was installed on Toomer’s Corner in 1938. Two years later, a room over the store housed API’s first music department.

During my daddy’s years as an API student in the early 1930s, Toomer’s Corner was the hub of activity. Folks met there to swap stories, get news, argue politics and discuss events of the college.

When my family moved to Auburn in 1952, Toomer’s Drugs belonged to McAdory Lipscomb, and it was my favorite hangout. I twirled around on the high padded stools at the soda fountain and slurped cherry Coke through a straw. On warm days, James Echols squeezed fresh lemons into sugar-water to make his legendary lemonade.

I pored over the comic books on the racks in the back corner. With a dime in my pocket, I could spend forever choosing between Little Lulu and Archie. As a teenager, my taste changed to Photoplay and Modern Screen.

In the far back of the store was the pharmacy where Mac Lipscomb filled prescriptions and gave wise advice. He didn’t mind at all that I hung around thumbing through his magazines.

I passed by the drugstore today and spotted the building that had once been my favorite place. In my mind, I saw children swirling around on the tall stools and James Echols stirring lemonade. I could hear chattering coeds and smell the sweet scent of confections. I pressed my nose to the glass, and the picture faded.

But I’m delighted the building is there. And even though James Echols isn’t in command of the soda fountain blending his much-loved concoction, there’s still lemonade to be had.

Mary Belk lives in Auburn and writes a column for the Opelika-Auburn News.

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