For me, the greatest trigger for nostalgia, déjà vu, and other unplanned trips to the past has been odor. Not a visual image, not a familiar sound, but smell. Corn dogs frying in deep fat carries me back to the midway of the Clyde Beatty Circus in Los Angeles; fresh cut pine transports me to a grove of Boy Scout Christmas trees propped up for sale in a vacant lot; a musty room reminds me of the cabin on Balboa Island we rented one summer when I was twelve. Another experience, nearly extinct in real time but strongly ingrained in my olfactory memory is relived in a unique environment—the drugstore.
I don't mean today's super-stores. They take on odors typical of the caverns in which they are housed—air conditioning, floor wax, gardening supplies. I'm referring to the small neighborhood pharmacies that acquired their characteristic fragrance during years of activity. It takes decades to build up that medicinal perfume—vapors penetrating wallpaper and woodwork, pungent extracts saturating bottle labels, spilled liniments and colognes seeping under linoleum and into floor boards, regenerated by the daily tread of busy feet.
Vintage drugstore odor is not easily defined, it is complex—a combination of volatile oils like lavender and wintergreen mingled with iodine, benzoin, carbolic acid, thymol and other aromatics. Whenever I stumble across one of these old survivors, the fumes take me back to my childhood and memories of the wonderful array of merchandise that was a drugstore: penny candy, fountain sodas, comic books, hair oil, chemicals for science projects and rubber tubing for sling shots. Does all this sound somewhat familiar? Your own recollections may take you back to Walgreens or Village Corner Drug, but for me it was the neighborhood Rexall Store.
|Farrand's Rexall Pharmacy|
Sumner, Iowa circa 1913