Europeans can take old-world charm and quaintness a bit too far sometimes. Little mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall hardware stores come to mind. There are still lots of them.
The size of these places really only allows you unhindered access to the few items arranged in front of the counter. Anything and everything else is in a labyrinth of stocked shelves behind the counter. Standing between you and the desired item is your ability to effectively describe it to the counter attendant—try asking for a washer without knowing the word for washer in the local language; I have. He or she will then disappear to fetch an item that may or may not be a washer, and certainly not a washer on the first attempt.
That said, choice is coming to European hardware shoppers, spearheaded
by the Germans and French, who’ve brought Home Depot lookalikes Bauhaus and Leroy Merlin
into increased prominence. There, I could touch the washers with my own
fingertips before selecting a winner to take to the register.
So I’m a bit chagrined to find that, in America—the Land of Choice—I
don’t have the option to go mom-and-pop, even if I wanted to. Nearly
all of the small hardware stores are long gone (and admittedly, they
were huge by European mom-and-pop standards); it’s big-box superstores
or bust now. I can live with that, because I love the Home Depot and
Lowe’s like I used to love Child World, the toy store of my youth.
What’s troubling me is that in America I can’t mom-and-pop my pharmacy visits. In Europe, whether it’s the Apotheek, the Apotheke or the Farmacia,
the locale is compact and usually cozy. (See Europe’s third-oldest pharmacy in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in the picture above.) Smartly dressed pharmacists in
white overcoats listen to your pharmaceutical requirements, disappear
behind the counter and come back with just the thing. You feel
reassured; this medicine is just what the doctor (or the pharmacist)
I compare this with a recent visit to my local Walgreens.
The aisle of cough medicine alone would have filled a European
pharmacy’s stock room to capacity. I had no idea which medicine’s bold
claims to give credence to. I went down the aisle in what appeared to
be an alphabetical ordering of brands; by the time I got to the Cs, I
was really missing the white-coat counter service from back in Europe.
Fighting the urge to get depressed by the onslaught of products and the
garishly bright decor, I determined to seek the best in any American
retail experience—excellent customer service—and headed for the
white-coated pharmacist at a hidden counter at the back of the store. But just as I arrived there, I saw that the pharmacist was attending
to a customer who’d driven up to the drive-thru window—something I
hadn’t seen in a pharmacy before, up-close anyway.
In Europe, some pharmacies still display antique ceramic jars;
you get the sense that the ambiance was done with the comfort of the
customer in mind. Compare that to America, where it seems more
probable that pharmacies are made with the comfort of Ford Explorers in
Perhaps some entrepreneurial American will hit on a latent desire
among consumers for some old-world charm in the American life of
big-box stores, big parking lots and big cars, and give us a cozy and
calming corner pharmacy to feel good in.
Until then, I’m headed to Walgreens for some rant-suppressants.