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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Miss James and the James Pharmacy - Old Saybrook, Connecticut

This sign is on the front of the James Pharmacy and Soda Fountain building in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Built in 1790, it originally served as a general store attached to the Humphrey Pratt Tavern. The Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, evidentially found it a convenient place to shop.

This building, and the lives which crossed its path, represent a rich tapestry of local history in this small village that sometimes reflected, and sometimes influenced, a wider world.

In the late 1870s, the building was moved a little farther down Main Street and became a pharmacy. Peter Lane owned the pharmacy later, and it was he who added the soda fountain in the 1890s, where a person could grab a sandwich and coffee in those days before chain fast foot restaurants snagged our attention on and off the interstates.

His sister-in-law, Anna Louise James, worked for him, and took the business over from him when he went off to World War I. Miss James, as she became formally known by all and sundry in the village, was destined to make history in her own quiet way.

Historical significance and riding the crest of changing times was nothing new to her family. Her father had been born a slave in Virginia. When he was 16 years old, he escaped. He made his way, like so many seekers of freedom from southern slavery, to New England. He stopped his journey in Connecticut, and made his home here. His daughter Anna was born in Hartford, but while still a small child, the family moved to the Connecticut shore village of Old Saybrook.

Miss James, in 1908, was the first female African-American to graduate from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. She took over the management of her brother-in-law’s business, changing the name to the James Pharmacy, and was the first female African-American pharmacist in the state of Connecticut.

Highly independent, and highly respected, Miss James served that community until 1967 when she retired. She lived in the back of the store until her death in 1977. One story told about Miss James in a documentary currently running down the street at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, notes that teenaged Kate, who frequented the shop (her family maintained a summer home not too far away), plunked herself at the counter and bemoaned that her parents would not allow her to run off to an acting audition in New York City. Miss James, from her exalted position behind the Vermont marble counter, considered the youngster’s plight, and plunked down bus fare for Kate. Miss James, in her capacity as the only grown up present, gave her permission to try to be an actress.

Another young person who was undoubtedly influenced by Miss James, was her own niece, Ann. Ann Lane Petry also became a registered pharmacist and worked at the James Pharmacy, but discovered that her path led away from prescriptions to career as a writer. She wrote several books, including “The Drug Store Cat” based on her childhood memories of her father’s, and later her Aunt Anna’s pharmacy. She is perhaps best known for her passionate and thoughtful novel “The Street”, which tells of an African-American woman’s struggle for survival, and for integrity in World War II-era New York City.

Though by most accounts, the Lane-James families settled quite successfully in the predominantly white population of Old Saybrook, Ms. Petry wrote an interesting passage in “The Street” describing her character Lutie, a New York woman, taking a job as a domestic for a well to do Connecticut family and encountering her first exposure as the only black person in the community. She discovers that the wealthy white women look at her with suspicion because she is young and beautiful, and they assume she will try to flirt and seduce their husbands, because they think that is what black girls do.

“It was, she discovered slowly, a very strange world that she had entered. With an entirely different set of values. It made her feel that she was looking through a hole in a wall at some enchanted garden. She could see, she could hear, she spoke the language of the people in the garden, but she couldn’t get past the wall. The figures on the other side of it loomed up life-size and they could see her, but there was this wall in between which prevented them from mingling on an equal footing. The people on the other side of the wall knew less about her than she knew about them.”

As much a pioneer as her pharmacist aunt, Ann Lane Petry was the first black female author to write about the struggles of African-American women in the city. “The Street” was published in 1946.

She had grown up in Old Saybrook, and when she married writer George Petry, she moved with him to Harlem, publishing many short stories, articles on the Harlem experience, and winning accolades as a unique voice among her generation. But celebrity, with all its trappings, was not for her. She took the money she’d earned from “The Street”, which was a best seller, and headed back home to Old Saybrook, where they did the typical New Englander thing and bought a 200-year-old house. After her daughter, Elisabeth was born, Ann Lane Petry turned her focus to historical novels for children.

She died in 1997, still living only a little ways away from her Aunt Anna’s pharmacy. It was, after all, home.

Today the James Pharmacy still stands, though it has been closed for certain periods and has undergone ownership change a number of times in the past few decades. There is currently still a soda fountain there, where you can, as I did this summer, enjoy an ice cream. The Vermont marble counter is still there, too.

The current owners run an adjoining shop featuring Moroccan imported goods. Have a look here for their website, Tissa’s Moroccan Marketplace. See this website on the history of the James Pharmacy, and look here for more memories about the inimitable Miss James.


Anonymous said...

that pharmacy was my home away from home when i was a kid in the 50s & early 60s.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Charles. Thanks for sharing this. I'd love to hear from anyone who remembers Miss James and the Pharmacy back in the day.

Bonny said...

I well remember Miss James. She was a soft-spoken full of life person. My granddad and my family would stop in Miss James Pharmacy on Sunday afternoons for an ice cream cone on our way to the town docks to see what traffic was going up and down the river. My grandfather loved Miss James as did the rest of the family.
I remember Elizabeth Petry as a very young child. She always had colorful bows in her hair. Miss Goodwin, a well-loved teacher in town, proudly talked about Ann Petry and read the story about the drugstore cat to her students.

The James and Petry family were much loved by Old Saybrook people.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Bonny. This was a lovely contribution to the conversation on Miss James. Thank you so much for adding these warm and loving memories.

Anonymous said...

We went to James's Pharmacy every Sunday after church to pick up the Sunday papers. Miss James sat behind the counter. She had snowy, white hair in a soft bun, and always seemed to wear a dazzling smile. Truly, the kind that lit up a room.

She always had a few cats about the place, which i had to pet every time we stopped in.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

This is a wonderful memory, Megan. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing it with us.

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