From the Bee archives: The counter is closed at Franke’s Pharmacy

Editor’s note: The Bee originally published this story on Oct. 29, 1991. We have republished it online to give readers background information on a historic Sacramento retailer that will be memorialized in the Golden 1 Center. The Franke’s building now houses Formoli’s Bistro in East Sacramento.

The wake started early at Franke’s Pharmacy.

“I’ve had lunch here every day for 22 years. Part of my life is gone, “ Marty Cohn said the other day. The 85-year-old woman picked at her cold cheese sandwich. “The good Lord willing, I’ll be here every day till it closes.”

This little drugstore at 3839 J St. – an East Sacramento institution for nearly 60 years and the last pharmacy in Sacramento to have a soda fountain – will close forever on Thursday. A hand-lettered sign is tacked to the daily-specials board: “You are special. We’ll miss you.”

Soon, there will be no more phosphates served at the counter, no more cherry Cokes, no more chocolate shakes, no more meatloaf sandwiches on white bread. The ancient gas griddle will be turned off. The red sign hanging over the sidewalk will be taken down. The ceiling fans will cease their peaceful spinning.

The Franke’s faithful have known for a couple of weeks about the imminent demise of the place. Each day they’ve come in feeling a little sadder than the day before.

“Where will we go now?” Dorothy Fisher asked rhetorically. “That’s what we want to know. I guess I’ll have to eat at home. That’s sad. When you get old, you want to get out and see people.”

Franke’s has always catered to neighborhood folk, and many of its customers are elderly. They come here for their prescription drugs, for their lunches, for conversations and coffee with their old friends.

The regulars keep their own coffee cups on a rack behind the fountain. Many of the cups have already been taken away.

Roy “Bob” Sykes is 80. He’s had coffee at the drugstore almost every day for more than 50 years.

“I really don’t remember exactly when I first started coming here, “ he said, scratching his head. “But in 1940, my older son was born at Sutter Memorial, and I celebrated with a big milkshake here.”

When Sykes rose to leave, a tall, bespectacled man in a dark suit stuck out his hand to say goodbye.

“I guess this will be the last time we do this, as far as at the drugstore, “ he told Sykes.

The man was Edward Ludwig Franke himself, the patriarch pharmacist of East Sacramento. Franke bought this building in April 1944. Before that, it had housed a Walgreen’s drugstore. He sold the business 29 years later to Ron Kumasaki, who kept both the name and the tradition that for so long had been Franke’s Pharmacy.

Edward Franke, 84, had stopped in to buy a greeting card and to drink coffee. He was waiting for his wife of 62 years, Virginia, who was at a beauty parlor down the street.

“It’s an unknown fact that I was going to to call it ELF Drugstore, with my initials. It’s funny, a lot of my salesmen called me “Frankie.” They’d say, “Hey, what’s Frankie’s last name?’ “ he said, chuckling.

He paid $7,000 for the business, and he found that the contents were worth that much when he did an inventory six months later.

“It was a real risk, “ he said of buying the place when he did. “I was army bait, but, thank goodness, (Gen. George) Patton made a good deal a month later. They didn’t take me.”

Franke remembers there being six drugstores in the vicinity when he started in business. He loved the competition but had to figure some way to stay ahead of the rest. So he contracted with 11 convalescent homes, to fill prescriptions.

“It’s hard work, “ he said. “I sometimes had to get up at 2 or 3 o’ clock in the morning for an emergency. I’d sometimes close at 8 or 9 at night, and somebody would call at midnight, and I’d have to come back.”

Franke’s successor, the 49-year-old Kumasaki, maintained the convalescent contracts. He is closing the drugstore because he sold those contracts to Eskaton, a health-care company, and will work as a consultant for that company. The store’s regular prescription business will be transferred to nearby Knott’s Pharmacy. Kumasaki hopes to rent out the Franke’s building.

“Our customers are personal friends, “ said Kumasaki, who traditionally hosts a Christmas Eve party for the store’s regulars, “but everything came together. It was the right time. I’ve been getting a lot of calls, people crying on the phone.”

Franke said he encouraged Kumasaki to sell.

“I don’t know how drugstores make it now. I don’t think there will be independent drugstores 10 years from now, “ he said.

Franke removed his California pharmaceutical license - dated May 1, 1928 - from the drugstore wall. He was taking it home after 47 years.

Somebody asked Franke if he’d be buying the red sign out front that is lighted with old neon: “Franke’s. Drugs. Fountain.” It will be offered for sale, along with the store’s merchandise, cabinets and fountain fixtures, during an auction at the store on Nov. 13.

“What would I do with it?” Franke said, smiling. “I’ll just take the memories. You can’t lose those. I love this place. I always will. I thought it was going to be here forever.”

Some of the merchandise appears to have been here forever. Stacked at the back of the store are several yellowed boxes of OTC surgical elastic garter hose for men and, alongside them, Moldform nylon hose for women with the slogan: “Glamorous support that only real rubber can give.”

The abundance of walkers, crutches and canes are indicative of Franke’s catering to its aging clientele. So are the bags of old-fashioned hard candy - lemon drops and horehound - hairnets, hard-to-find hairpins and $5 reading glasses.

“We don’t sell hair dyes or perms because most ladies in this neighborhood have their hair done, “ said Sharon Rogerson, 56, the store manager. She doesn’t know what she’ll do when the store closes. She worked at her uncle’s pharmacy for 17 years before coming here nearly 20 years ago.

Karmella Johnson, 49, fries the burgers and shakes the malts at Franke’s. She’s only worked here 18 months - a decided newcomer in this venerable company - but has endeared herself to the regulars by knowing what they like.

“Well, let’s see, “ she said. “Marty likes the chipped beef, and Mary Jane likes the hot chicken salad. And Dorothy really loves the macaroni and cheese.”

Johnson, also unsure what she’ll do after Thursday, smiled bravely and straightened her shoulders. “I love being the last working soda jerk in Sacramento.”

Steve and Cynthia Sharp, both 47, walked in just after noon and sat at the counter. They each ordered a hamburger.

Johnson laid the beef patties and buttered sesame buns on the griddle inside the 1945 contraption that everybody calls Gertrude. Soon, the fragrance of bubbling grease permeated the air.

“I try to come in once a week for a hamburger, “ Cynthia said. “I’ve been coming here since the ’70s.”

She lived in Africa for a few years, and the first piece of mail she received there was a postcard - a snapshot of the exterior of Franke’s Pharmacy.

“My friend knew that was the thing I missed most, “ Cynthia Sharp said. “There’s no chance that it isn’t going to happen, is there? I’m heartbroken. I love this place. I was planning to still be coming here when I was 70.”