secret_history (2006-23)

So Long’s

Knoxville’s last drugstore soda fountain celebrates its Golden Anniversary

by Jack Neely

Long’s just turned 50. Symbolically and literally straddling the two worlds of Kingston Pike and Old Kingston Pike, Long’s is a drugstore, or, since the ’80s, a “drugcenter,” but I bet most customers there on any given day aren’t there for the drugs, so much as for this handy vacation. At Long’s, it’s always summer.

We grew up together. As a small kid I got plastic soldiers by the bag, candy bars, capguns and ammo, Beatles bric-à-brac—Beatles bubble-gum cards and, perhaps the single weirdest thing ever sold at Long’s, Beatles wigs in plastic bags. I didn’t know the definition of a word up on the wall, Sundries —I assumed it was a posh dessert treat—but Long’s had some sundries, for sure.

I’d get a BLT or a grilled cheese with my dad after a haircut downstairs. Back when they were open every day, my family used to go there after church for a cheeseburger Sunday dinner. In the early ’70s, it was on my paper route, and as I was bringing the first puzzling news of Watergate to my 80-odd subscribers, I’d stop in for some onion rings and a cherry Coke, when a cherry Coke was a specialty you had to ask the lady to concoct.

Long’s was my library, too. At Long’s I discovered Superman and Batman and Spiderman, years before Hollywood thought they deserved blockbuster movies. Call me square, but I favored the DC comics—Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Green Lantern, the Green Arrow. I could picture a world that would allow for a Superman, a guy from another planet whose ordinary abilities would make him seem super-powerful here in our puny world. He was too polite to say, You call that gravity?

Plausibility was key to the suspension of disbelief. I had much more difficulty positing a world in which a rock man, a stretch man, a fire man, and whatever that blonde lady was, happened to live in the same town, and worked together on the same team. Everything Marvel did implied a you-kids’ll-believe-anything ethic on the part of the creators. Take Spiderman, by himself. The wrist web-spinning deal alone—that a guy in a skin-tight suit could shoot, out of his wrist, a secure vine to swing on, so adhesive it instantly attaches to every building it touches—well, it seemed to me, at age 8, such a gonzo idea that suddenly everything Batman, the Green Arrow, and Moses ever did seemed physically probable. There was kind of a snotty anarchy about Marvel that was unsettling to a firstborn.

When nobody was looking I also read Archie—the scenes always easy to picture at the Long’s soda fountain—and Sad Sack, and especially Uncle Scrooge comics, for which I had an embarrassing fascination. I was almost a teenager, still reading comic books about ducks. But it was easier to imagine a duck who could talk, while otherwise bound by universal physical principles, than a Spiderman.

Bring up any of those characters, and I always think of a sunny afternoon at Long’s. The store stopped carrying comics years ago, as almost everybody did.

The name belongs to Clarence Long, the pharmacist who opened the drugstore in 1956. By then he was already well-known among pharmacy hounds. He’d worked at Ellis & Ernest, the Cumberland Avenue institution, since the 1920s. When Long opened his own drugstore at the end of one of the first shopping centers on Kingston Pike, this neighborhood was still at the western city limits of Knoxville. Most of the cars on the pike bore out-of-state tags, following the old Dixie Highway from the Midwest to Florida.

Of course Long’s had a soda fountain. In 1956, it was a miserable excuse for a drugstore that didn’t. Mr. Long was very successful with both ventures, and by the mid-’60s there were actually three Long’s drugstores in West Knoxville, but the first one was always the best known. They say Neyland was a regular.

Mr. Long was proprietor for the store’s first 10 years; he died in 1966, after an automobile accident on Kingston Pike.

Since then, the Peck family has run Long’s, but has kept the name of the founder, whom that some of them worked with.

I haven’t sat down to eat at Long’s lately. It’s not because they started serving food on styrofoam plates. (I resent styrofoam, not just because it tends to melt when they put hot onion rings on it. I’m envious of styrofoam’s eternal nature. When my flesh and bones have rotted away, there will still be, lodged somewhere in the Earth’s crust, this memorial to one grilled-cheese sandwich I had at Long’s in the mid-1990s.)

It wasn’t because I was discouraged by molten styrofoam or its shopping center’s various experiments with bland architecture or its sad dearth of comic books. It was because, the last couple of times I dropped in, I couldn’t find a place to sit down.

I think of Long’s on Saturdays, after picking my daughter up from some sporting event or dropping by Mayo’s. Unfortunately, so do others. Get there between 10 and 2 on a Saturday, and chances are you’ll stand there waiting for a while, and slowly realize nobody’s budging any time soon. Not the harried family with the baby in the high chair wiping his nose with a hamburger patty, not the elderly couple appraising the crusts of the club sandwiches they’ve been eating weekly for half a century, not the seven teenagers at a table for four chanting caffeinated Omigods to each other, not the substantial middle-aged lady at the window with nothing but a cup of coffee, giving you and your family a contemptuous once-over that seems to say, I might just order another one .

There is a strong sense of entitlement at Long’s. It’s not easy to find a chair, and if you do, you keep it, no matter what. Even if you really need to leave, you don’t, because you know that if you do leave, someone will get your chair, and it will probably be someone less worthy than you.

But the place still smells the same as it did when I romped in there in P.F. Flyers over 40 years ago. A combination of melting cheese and yellow mustard and aromatic grease and something sweet, like artificial cherries, buoyant with carbonation. How many drugstores in the world still have a soda fountain? I may go there for lunch today, or breakfast tomorrow. It’s about time for some summer.