Business is a family affair at this much-loved, time-honored establishment.
You might even say that going there is “habit-forming,” but in a good way. It’s Central Drug in Bessemer City. And according to co-owners Robby and Melissa Putnam, this cherished drugstore has been a big part of the local landscape for 91 years now.
The Putnams spoke with us recently about their family, their business and how the two fit so well together.
Robby explained that good, old Bessemer City is his hometown. He grew up there and is a graduate of Gaston Day High School. He and his wife, the former Melissa Hartis, are both 1993 graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Pharmacy. Born in Kannapolis, Melissa grew up in nearby Boiling Springs.
After graduation from pharmacy school, they both moved to Elizabeth City to be staff pharmacists for the Revco chain of drugstores. They were married there the following summer. And although they enjoyed Elizabeth City and the Outer Banks, they both felt more at home in the western part of the Tarheel State. So in 1995, they moved back to Bessemer City and continued to work for Revco in Gaston County. At this time, Robby’s father, Jessie Putnam, and Alfred Best owned and operated Central Drug together.
A filial duty and the Roaring Twenties
But in the fall of 1996, Central Drug suffered a huge loss, when Best passed away.
So Robby left Revco to help out his dad at Central Drug. Over the next year, Robby learned the daily operations of Central Drug. And Jessie decided it was time to think about retirement.
Thus in October of 1997, Robby and Melissa purchased Central Drug. Robby’s dad continued to work what he called “part time” until his death in 2013.
“However,” as Robby recalled, “if he was in town, he opened up every morning, stayed for a couple of hours and then checked in several times before closing time.” It all started way back in the Roaring Twenties. Pharmacist O.R. Black created Central Drug in 1927. “Originally,” said Robby, “the building was home to many businesses. Central Drug was located on the main level. A full-service barber shop was downstairs in the basement, and upstairs was home to a dental office, doctor’s office, beauty parlor and a photographer.”
In 1957, whilst attending UNC-Chapel Hill, Jessie Putnam began working summers at the soda fountain and in the pharmacy at Central Drug. After earning his UNC pharmacy degree in 1961, Jessie bought Central Drug from pharmacist Cossie Williams. Some years later, Best joined Jessie as a partner at Central Drug.
“Over the years, the store went through many remodels,” Robby recalled, adding that at one point, his father “removed many of the original wooden fixtures from the store in order to create a more modern feel andadditional floor space for merchandise. Luckily, he chose to store them in a creative way by making a ‘pharmacy room’ at his house.”
After Jessie passed away in the spring of 2013, Robby wanted to honor his dad at Central Drug by displaying Jessie’s large collection of old apothecary bottles, mortars and pestles and other pharmacy memorabilia. This seemed like the perfect time to bring the old-time feeling back to Central Drug. Now the store uses the original 1927 wooden soda fountain with stained glass and marble-topped booths.
The Putnams still use the wooden fixtures with sliding glass doors to hold all of their over-the-counter products. Jessie’s collections live on in display cases and upon shelves high above the regular store merchandise. Most of Jessie’s collection is still in storage. But Robby tried to pick some of his favorite things to share with the drugstore’s customers.
“The store continues to serve drinks and ice cream from the old-fashioned soda fountain, like they did in 1927,” he noted.
Central Drug’s soda fountain is best known for its orangeade. Several hundred orangeades are made and served weekly.
“People who come back home to visit Bessemer City and new customers have said we have the best orangeades in the state,” said Robby. “I don’t know about that. But I think ours are special for three reasons: crushed ice, our secret sugar recipe and plenty of fresh oranges!”
Both Robby and Melissa Putnam agree that their drugstore is a mighty special place. Jointly, the couple added:
“We are very thankful to the people of Bessemer City who have supported Central Drug over the years. Many of our customers grew up coming in with their parents and grandparents, and they continue to do business with us today. We think the success of small business depends on making yourself unique, and we believe that we have done that at Central Drug. We believe that our customers appreciate that we know them by name, and we endeavor to run Central Drug with a very family-oriented atmosphere.
“At any given time, you might hear a discussion at the register about how our kids are doing or what particular customers’ kids or grandkids are doing. You might see us showing off pictures of our kids from our cell phones or passing around a newborn baby on its first trip to Central Drug. When you walk into a chain pharmacy, you notice that they tend to all look alike. But when you walk into an independent pharmacy, you see that each one has its own character. We hope that Central Drug continues to always have that small-town feel that makes people want to grab a drink or a cone of ice cream and sit and talk a little, while their prescriptions are being filled.”