Sometimes, when a guy is trying to quell nameless yet nagging ennui, he can take anything as a sign, an existential road map promising succor.
So there I was, walking down Broadway in this most impersonal of cities and wondering why I felt so cold and hollow even though it was 72 degrees in mid-November, when I glanced up after crossing Third Street. I saw, literally, a sign. It was in red, with an all-caps script: Se Hacen Limpias. Haga Su Cita.
My long-forgotten college Spanish – three semesters’ worth; don’t ask about grades – dredged up a crude translation, something along the lines of “Become clean. Make your appointment.”
A spiritual cleansing, I assumed. I’m fully capable of tending to my personal hygiene, thank you very much, and this corner store whose sign read Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollar didn’t appear to be the kind of place that offers trendy high-colonic cleanses. (Go to the Westside, Century City or Santa Monica for that.) No, this seemed to be a drugstore where the secular and the saintly, the spiritual and medicinal, commingle.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The window displays, which an innocent might first mistake as fronting a folk art museum exhibit, confirmed it.
There was an 8-inch figurine of San Lazarus, eyes mournful, expression hangdog, leaning on crutches while suppurating wounds decorate his bare chest. There was San Simon, spiffily suited and sitting on a throne like a total boss, stogie between his lips, a bulging bag of coins in one hand, a gold cane in the other. There was the bust of a raffish, mustachioed dandy with bedroom eyes, identified cryptically as “Jesus Malverde.” And there she was, Santa Muerte herself, the venerated personification of holy death, begowned in frilly lace, holding a scythe, her high cheekbones so pronounced because it’s just her grinning skull.
Curiosity – Who are these icons? What’s their significance? Can they help me? – compelled me to enter.
At first glance, you don’t even recognize it as a pharmacy, so overwhelming are the statues and figurines that seem a sectarian mix of Roman Catholicism and Yoruban-inspired Santeria. The eye next goes to the colorful candles and rows of holy water, promising everything from a cure of your hemorrhoids to success in the weekly lottery. Then you notice the richly adorned alcoves, serving as temples to the saints, and side rooms offering card readings and the aforementioned spiritual cleansings. But look closer and, yeah, you do see Band-Aids, ChapStick and Tylenol.
No surprise that a store such as this exists downtown, given that this stretch of Broadway long has been a Latino shopping stronghold. What is surprising is that Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollar has survived a decade’s worth of gentrification that has seen many Latino businesses, and its clientele, priced out. So this would be a feel-good story, something to lift spirits, most notably my own. You know, that whole plucky-underdog angle, tradition triumphing over trendiness.
But not five minutes after Richard (“Call me Dick”) Blitz, the 77-year-old farmacia owner, greeted me with a metacarpal-crunching handshake did he disabuse me of such sappy notions.
“There was a loophole in our lease,” he said, bluntly. “We’ll be out by the end of January.”
Blitz, who has owned the shop for decades and seen the neighboring Million Dollar Theater, an L.A. movie icon, go through many incarnations, is matter-of-fact about the closure. No hand-wringing, no crowdfunding campaigns to forestall closure. He will complain about the evils of the “G-word” (gentrification), but even those protestations seem half-hearted. Nope, Blitz knows he doesn’t have a prayer. He can light all the velas he wants, make offerings to San Jude and every other statue in the joint, and it’s not going to change reality.
“I may re-open somewhere else, maybe not,” he added. “May say to hell with it and give all this stuff away. Maybe they’re doing me a favor, I don’t know. It’s no big deal. Business has been off the last year.”
True, farmacia regulars can find other santeria botanicas in more Latino-populated sectors of Greater Los Angeles. But, as the travel website Atlas Obscura noted in a recent write-up, “This one is an eccentric among eccentrics.”
Mostly, that’s due to the sheer volume of religious fetishes. They line every wall, fill all display cases. The altars (yes, more than one) dedicated to Santa Muerte are strewn with monetary offerings, coins and dollar bills. People leave notes, wishes for illnesses to be healed or straying spouses to return. There are candles marked Destrancadera to unblock one’s path to happiness; others under the heading Leche de la Mujer Amada (milk of the beloved mother), whose astral essences promote intimacy and attraction; a bath water called Separacion: Rompe Amores (love breaks); and water called Tapa Boca (mouth cap) to stop others’ gossip. You also can buy bath herbs called Miel de Amor (love honey). Directions: “Mix well and stay in tub about 7 minutes while bathing and reflect on desires.”
“We used to light hundreds of candles in here and people would come and pray,” Blitz said. “The city came in and shut down the candle burning. Guess they were worried about their high rises going up (in flames).”
Ask Blitz about the origins of the statues, or even about the ingredients sprinkled on the candles to cast spells, and he’ll often call over one of his employees to explain.
I pointed to the ceramic visage of San Simon, the one surrounded by money bags and bling, and Blitz called, “Gladys, San Simon? Qué? Suerte?”
“Yes,” Gladys answered in English. “It’s for good luck. For money, actually.”
Next, I pointed to the statue of the mysterious Jesus Malverde.
“I know that one,” he said, smiling. “Jesus Malverde is for marijuana, right, Gladys?”
The reason Blitz is not well-versed in Santeria religious lore?
“I’m Jewish,” he said.
When queried to explain his cross-cultural entrepreneurship, Blitz said, “About 10, 15 years ago, I had to get more business, so we came up with the candles and (spiritual) water things. (The store) just evolved slowly.”
Blitz says he respects all religions and the rituals and totems used therein. He’s just providing a service to his Latino customers, he said. He quickly added that “We don’t sell anything bad, no evil spells. Praying for your daughter? Fine. Love? Money? Fine. But nothing bad. We could do it. We don’t. We can’t control what people do with the candles.”
So, sort of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy?
“Yeah, you might say that,” Blitz said. “But I will warn people and say, ‘If you wish bad on somebody else, it’ll bite you in the ass.’ ”
Which is why Blitz isn’t conjuring any nefarious, witch-crafty spells on the people responsible for the gentrification and store closure. But I did see a pincushion type of doll in a package labeled “Voodoo Mujer” selling for $4.95.
Might come in handy. A guy never knows.
Farmacia Y Botanica Million Dollar
- Where: 301 S. Broadway, Los Angeles
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily