The Little Shop on the Corner


Piatt Park downtown is lit up for Christmas. Its graceful wintery arches are hung with garlands of swag, and the twinkling night lights make it look like a snow globe someone shook up and left to settle.

William Henry Harrison majestically astride his horse on the west end of the park faces a bronze statue of President Garfield at the other end. Garfield was a politician from Ohio who managed to stay in office for six months before he was assassinated. (People had a shorter fuse back then when it came to presidents.)

The park is how I imagine a Parisian quarter might look on a festive, foggy night.

A lot of Cincinnatians call it Garfield Place instead of Piatt Park, probably because it's hard to pronounce. My friend Lib Stone, who is on the Cincinnati Park Board, says Cincinnatians have always called it "Pie-ett" Park with a long "i" although the family who gave the land in 1815 pronounced their name "Pea-ett."

In any case, it's Cincinnati's first park, and the land was given to the city for a market almost 200 years ago.

Benet's Pharmacy is in the doctor's building at the east end of Garfield Place.

It's been there since 1925, 17 years short of a century, and the minute you walk inside the door you know you've made a "find."

An old-fashioned institutional green scale sits just to the left of the front door, with a slot where you can put in a penny and get your weight and your fortune. Like the scale, the rest of the pharmacy has been largely untouched by time: The cabinets and fixtures are the same ones pictured on the wall when Jonah and Harry Benet owned the place.

The 4711 cologne and the displays of Kent hairbrushes and combs have been there since the 1980s at least and probably before that.

Since its opening in 1925, it's been buffeted by the winds of fortune. The little shop on Garfield Place is still there, though, looking unlike any drug store you've ever seen.

When the Volstead Act was passed and Prohibition came along, you could buy alcohol at the drug store in some form or another. When the downtown doctors moved up to Clifton, Benet's became a "neighborhood pharmacy."

Now, with the advent of large chain drug stores selling everything from laxatives to hair spray, Benet's has become more a "niche" pharmacy. They make many of their own compounds, especially for dermatologists, and they still carry and order old favorites like Father John's Cold Syrup, Black Draught and the infamous 666 Cold Syrup.

Pam Kohrman bought the business from Joe Palermo (who is still a pharmacist there) a few years ago because she feels a commitment to the community and to the spirit of Benet's.

"It's truly not like any other store," she says, running a hand through her short, brown curls.

She and her employees are a "family" of a kind, she says. Mary Lou and Julia run the cash register, the accounts and the orders and keep things lively.

It can get hectic: phones ringing, people demanding to know why they can't get their oxycontin refilled without "goin' through a mess of doctors." The deliverymen come and go quickly, often stopping to call their customers from the phone behind the counter to tell them, "I'm leaving now … please be ready for delivery."

"I think we provide a service to the community," Pam says, juggling my questions, a phone call and a customer who's asking for a special order of Camay soap. "We used to just deliver within a five-mile radius, but that is expanding. We try to serve Over-the-Rhine, too."

There are no drug stores at all in Over-the-Rhine, and many of the older folks there have no way to get their medicine.

I asked Pam if she had any favorite "creative" ways of circumventing the doctors' orders on prescriptions. She laughed and said, "Our customers are a pretty good bunch, but I do remember one person who came in once and said, 'The pills flew out of my lap, over the bridge and into the Ohio River.' "

She returns to talking about why she bought the place.

"I felt this sense of continuity, you know," she says. "Joe owned it for so long, and before that Jonas and Harry Benet owned it. There's just a feeling about the place. It's a great store, I think."

My dog, Sister, agrees. Benet's is her absolute favorite destination. She likes to lie under the ceiling fans on the cool black-and-white-checked linoleum while we wait for a prescription to be filled.

We watch people come in and go out, in various forms of sickness and health, in wheelchairs and on canes and crutches, the lame and the halt. In spite of their physical misery, though, they're friendly with the staff, even cheerful while they're in the restful atmosphere of Benet's.

My old friend, Linny Hanselman, had a metaphor: "It's better than a shoebox full of Valium." I think her phrase suits Benet's well, with a wink and a nudge.

The outside world is often indifferent and cold. At Christmas, the phony tinsel and canned music can exacerbate our feelings of isolation. Telemarketers flood the phone lines with pre-recorded messages, and old-fashioned pharmacies have mostly gone the way of the small savings and loans we used to patronize.

But Benet's is still a beacon. It's as unique and inviting as it ever was, as much a part of the fabric of Cincinnati as the statue of Garfield outside the door, its brass arms raised in a seasonal benediction to a proud city still struggling to find its own, authentic way.

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: [email protected]. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.

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