The History of Delekta’s Pharmacy

This pharmacy serves Rhode Island's specialty, coffee cabinets, while also doling out prescriptions the old-fashioned way.

Photo by Carolyn V. Marsden.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a 2003 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine. We reposted it because Delekta’s Pharmacy has decided to shut down the pharmacy side of the business as of today, April 26, 2017, but it will continue serving coffee cabinets and the like after Thursday, April 27, 2017.

Whole Lotta Shaking Going On

By Sarah Francis

Every morning Eric Delekta mixes up a batch of rich, dark coffee syrup for the couple of dozen cabinets he expects to sell that day at Delekta’s Pharmacy. A Hamilton-Beech blender whips the sweet slush in a tall silver cup: two supersize scoops of ice cream, one cup of whole milk, and a couple of squirts of the aforementioned syrup with its all-important secret ingredient. The recipe belongs to Eric’s granddad, Ignatius Delekta. (And don’t bother to ask what the secret is. Eric’s not telling.) Some cabinet lovers are so addicted they stop in every day for their zillion-calorie fix. The prize, though, goes to the die-hard fan in Westport who makes the daily trek – twenty-one miles – to Warren, where Delekta’s has been dispensing this delicious dieter’s ruination for more than fifty years.

By all accounts, Delekta’s is the last of its type in Rhode Island, a family-owned pharmacy and soda fountain, tiny and modest with its original pressed-tin ceiling and mahogany cabinets, a friendly outpost holding its own in a frayed-nerve world. Every customer here knows the staff by name and if you’re a regular you can run a tab and get free delivery. The locals appreciate the attention, bringing in flowers or pies, and even lunch for the staff. “If you’re a regular,” says Pat Romano, who’s worked behind the counter for sixteen years, “we trust you.”

And while today’s average chain drugstore is a 10,000-square-foot glistening palace of consumerism, hawking everything from DVDs to karaoke machines, Delekta’s has stuck to business as a reliable cornerstone in people’s lives. Back in 1858 when the first apothecary was built on the corner that is now Delekta’s, small towns such as Warren rarely had a doctor. Instead, the local pharmacist was the ever-present medical professional, caring for a town’s residents from birth to death. No one knew you better than the neighborhood druggist who might prescribe ointments for burns, liniments for psoriasis, even leeches to cleanse a wound.

Many of these medical oddities still jam the upper shelves of Delekta’s, small bottles of mysterious blue and brown liquids with labels that read benzoin and menthol and lavender. They’ve been here since the first pharmacy opened on this well-traveled stretch of Main Street, and occasionally a stranger will offer to buy the old bottles with their rippled glass. No dice, says Eric Delekta, the store’s soft-spoken co-owner and business manager. “It’s hard to sell something that means so much,” he says. If these potions were meant to cure ailments that now seem esoteric, the lipstick-size vials of Humphrey’s Pills that dress up Delekta’s front window don’t mess around. For just thirty-nine cents they promised to cure everything from simple throat irritation to facial neuralgia, to, um, piles.

Just what was Humphrey’s magical ingredient? “I have no idea,” says Eric’s aunt, Kathleen Delekta Lowney, a small woman with big owlish glasses and a crisp white pharmacist’s coat and clogs. “We haven’t sold them for twenty years.” [Editor’s note: Lowney tragically died in 2010 after being struck by an automobile while in the crosswalk just outside Delekta’s.]

Kathleen has worked in the family business since her father, Ignatius — inventor of the secret coffee syrup — bought the business in 1948 and renamed it Delekta’s. As a student, she worked the soda fountain, doling out pineapple sundaes and chocolate sodas and strawberry ice cream cones. “It was my favorite job as a young girl,” she says. “It was the kind of place where you could hang around.”

Later, after Kathleen graduated in 1953 as one of just four women in a class of thirty-six at the Rhode Island College of Pharmacy and Allied Sciences, she worked again for her dad, this time as a pharmacist. Ignatius, ever dapper in his white shirt, buzz cut and bow tie, would tiptoe into the back room where his daughter was filling prescriptions. “Back then we kept the condoms in a bottom wooden drawer,” she says. “He’d kneel down and slide them out so I couldn’t see them. I had two children by then. What did he think?”

There was also the startled customer who asked for a prophylactic toothbrush and was handed a box of Trojans. The condoms are kept out front now, along with the deodorant, kazoos, greeting cards, ace bandages, costume jewelry and the Crabtree and Evelyn soaps. Shirley lives down the street at an assisted living center. She stops in regularly to put down $5 on a bracelet she’s laid away. Another woman comes in for her copy of the weekly Warren Times-Gazette.  But one of the biggest draws is still the soda fountain, with its marble counter, the wooden booths for two, and those luscious cabinets for just $2.50. “It’s not a money loser,” Eric concedes.

In the early 1900s, there were 100,000 pharmacies with soda fountains around the country. By the mid 1990s, that number had dwindled to 150, victims of a homogenized suburban America, big box discount stores, and the pesky costs of maintaining creeky ice cream freezers and seltzer machines. Delekta’s, though, is still going strong, a local fixture that’s survived five or six competitors, partly because the family has absolutely no interest in selling out, and partly because of the neighbors. “That’s the secret of our success,” Eric says, “ our loyalty to our customers and their loyalty to us.”

John Millard has been one of the faithful at Delekta’s for years, stopping in daily for, what else, a cabinet. “I live within walking distance so if I have car trouble it doesn’t interfere,” he says, only half joking.

He pours the chilled coffee froth out of its blender cup and into a large glass. He does this himself, he says, to ensure he gets every last drop. “When I went off to college, Kathleen sent me a supply of coffee syrup as a stash,” he confesses. “I’ve been coming in here since I was old enough to appreciate ice cream. My father’s been coming here all his life, and he’s eighty-eight.”

“I’ve lived all over,” he adds, “and this is the best coffee syrup in the world.”

He scoops up his cabinet and shuffles past the jars of penny candy, the faded black and white postcards, and the antique jars filled with bicarbonate of soda. The bell jangles on the door as it closes gently behind him, another satisfied customer in a Delektable world. facebook.com/Delekta-Pharmacy-30251397602/

 

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