Eight-year-old Makenna Coonts reaches for an ice cream cone at Ava Drug Company.
AVA – Few kids nowadays get the chance to lick drippy ice cream cones at drug store counters. Youngsters around Douglas County, however, defy passing decades at Ava Drug Company. The store still serves sweet treats at an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with cherry-red stools, a checkerboard floor and vintage prices.
Generations of locals grew up with the fountain, which was a community hub in the 1950s. David Norman recalls those days firsthand: His family began the business, and he’s been involved for much of its life. From those years, however, two moments are especially significant.
There was the time he ripped out the soda fountain — and the day, a few years later, when he decided to recreate it basically the way it was before.
“It was a far greater success than I could’ve ever wished for,” says Norman from one of the store’s booths. “I wasn’t smart enough to realize it was going to be a tourist attraction, and it turned out to be.”
Back in the past
Ava Drug Company, pictured in 1950. (Courtesy of Ava Drug)
Ava Drug wasn’t the Norman family’s first foray into the pharmacutical world. His grandfather — Boone Norman, Sr. — got into the business in 1919, and was involved in several stores before Ava Drug opened in 1950.
By that time, the younger Norman had two generations of pharmacists in his family tree. He also joined the ranks in 1967 after being graduated from St. Louis College of Pharmacy. However, he worked at Ava Drug long before getting his degree.
But back then, he wasn’t filling prescriptions. He was filling coolers with soda pop.
“(I) worked here until I got so sick of the place I could hardly stand it,” says Norman of his younger years. “All your pop was in bottles in those days, so I carried cases of bottles up. Put them in ice. That was a big deal.”
They also sold a variety of merchandise, including toys, BB guns, ping-pong sets and much more. “In my day, my dad sold boat motors,” recalls Norman. “I remember seeing them on a stand over here.”
And the store’s hours reflected its role as a social center in the community.
“We were open from 8 to 10:30 every day including Sunday,” says Norman, noting that Saturday was the only day that differed. “We were open until 11:30 at night because the theater had a midnight show.”
Those hours were interrupted in 1958, when a fire — likely caused by a hot-dog machine — destroyed the building. But the store came back, and so did an updated soda fountain.
“(The fire) gave Dad a chance to redesign the store a little bit, and of course he put the soda fountain as far away from him as he could get — and the jukebox,” says Norman of his father, who was busy filling prescriptions.
Ava Drug’s soda fountain before it was removed in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Ava Drug)
But by the early 1980s, the younger Norman was leading the store and decided to do something drastic.
“In the ‘80s, I took this soda fountain out,” he says. “It was old-fashioned, and I just thought we didn’t need it. I had a whole bunch of reasons. My dad wasn’t very happy about it. We lost a customer or two.”
And it was something he quickly realized wasn’t the best idea. “It was a mistake,” he recalls now. “This side of the store was just as dead as it could be. Never could figure out how to get people on this side.”
But what was done, was done — at least for the moment.
Rebuilding the fountain
David Norman, who is also Ava’s mayor, poses at the soda fountain.
Things changed over the next few years. Norman decided to sell the store in 1991 to local man Bill Mackey, and later purchased another drug store in Mansfield. That, however, wasn’t the end of the story. After years away, Norman bought Ava Drug back in 2003 — and he knew just what he’d do first: Restore the soda fountain.
“My age, when I put the soda fountain back, was about the age my dad was when I took it out,” says Norman. “So when I got to be about my dad’s age, all of a sudden I had this revelation that the soda fountain was going to be a wonderful thing.”
Restoring the fountain
That desire, while well-intentioned, was more challenging than his simple wish led him to believe.
“I thought I knew everything there was about soda fountains,” says Norman. “And really, the only thing I knew was this is where I met my girlfriend, and this is where I had ice cream.”
To compound the problem, few folks were in the soda-fountain-building business by the early 2000s. “I coudn’t find anyone who would take me seriously about putting the soda fountain back in,” says Norman.
Finally, an encounter at Fellers Food Service Equipment got things rolling. The Springfield-based business was where the soda fountain originated back in 1958. But it wasn’t until his third trip that Norman was introduced to longtime employee Jack Brazeal, who noticed Norman’s Ava Drug hat right away.
“He said, ‘In 1958, I built the fixtures for Ava Drug and hauled them down there,'” recalls Norman. It was a discovery that ultimately led to a nearly exact replication of the 1950s fountain.
“I said, ‘Now, I know you don’t make booths any more. You don’t sell soda fountains. But I’ve got to have some help,’” says Norman. “I said, ‘If I build this soda fountain, how high do I make it?’ He told me. ‘Where should (the stool sit)?’ He knew all of that in his head. He knew the dimensions of all of this. How long, how high, how wide the seats are. And I just wrote it all down. He gave me every bit of it.”
Ava Drug’s stools aren’t original, but they sit in the same spots ones did in the past.
After securing those details, Norman worked with local contractor Gary Lakey to make the project a reality. Two years later — they went slowly to avoid buying on credit — the project came to be like a materialized memory.
Same-style vintage menus returned, nestled next to the red-and-white napkin holders. Coca-Cola decor reigned supreme. The stools sat in exactly the same spots, thanks to still-visible drill holes from the previous ones. Even some of the woodwork was vintage.
“This backbar — this old-looking thing — that’s original,” says Norman, indicating the wood behind the fountain. “I found it — one family had it in two pieces in (their) garage and was using them as workbenches.”
Finally, in April 2005, the fountain was ready for guests and a grand opening.
“We had a party on Friday night for all of those who had worked here,” says Norman. “This place — they were just crawling everywhere. It was a wonderful night.”
Emotion creeping into his voice, Norman recalls that evening, which reunited decades of employees-turned-friends. That event’s energy carried into the next day, when the fountain was officially open to the public.
“My gosh! I couldn’t believe it,” says Norman, noting that at the time, he couldn’t convince Coca-Cola to install a soda machine. They didn’t believe he’d have enough business to need one — but he soon proved them wrong.
“We were out of Coke about 10 o’clock in the morning,” says Norman. “We were lined up all the way to the corner waiting to get in here.”
That weekend’s excitement only continued to grow, and was supported by something most didn’t expect: 1950s prices, including nickel-a-dip ice cream, soda pop for a dime, and five-cent coffee.
Looking back, Norman says he didn’t intend to leave the prices so cheap long-term. But he realized that even though he lost money on the soda fountain’s sales, he made them up in the prescription business, which went from around 190 per day to nearly 400.
“Why did we fill that many prescriptions? Right here is the reason,” he says. “This is why drug stores had soda fountains to begin with. It was to get you in here.”
Selling the store
But even at the soda fountain, time marches on. In the late 2000s, Norman decided to sell the store to USA Drug, headquartered in Pine Bluff, Ark. For the next few years, things continued basically the way they had prior to the sale. “They just left me like I was,” Norman says. “I managed it (and) I did what I wanted to.”
At the time, “I figured I’d probably die sitting up here in a booth,” says Norman. “But my world changed when they sold it to Walgreens.”
The transition took place in 2012, when Walgreens purchased USA Drug’s holdings — and by default, Ava Drug. And while the corporation may know how to sell drugs, “they don’t have a clue what to do with this,” says Norman of the soda fountain.
In the five years since, some things have changed. Norman no longer works at the store — he stepped away some time ago — and while prices are still low, they’re not quite as cheap as they were before. Coffee and sodas are 75 cents a cup, and ice cream is 50 cents a scoop.
But despite the changes, the fountain is still a destination for locals.
Six-year-old Anna Hannaford pauses from her ice cream to smile for the camera.
“When we come, it’s because the kids want to come for ice cream,” says Josh Cleaver, who brought two of his youngsters to the soda fountain on a recent Saturday. “And you can come as often as they want considering the prices.”
The soda fountain is more to the family than just a great stop for dessert. It’s also where Cleaver and his future wife brought their respective children for an initial meeting while they were dating. They’re memories far sweeter than any strawberry sundae.
Such nostalgia — and likely, a way to connect with the community — ties back to why Norman decided to put his heart and soul into the business in the first place.
“Filling prescriptions is important, but it’s not the job. The job is me waiting on you, and finding out about what you do, where you live, talking to you about your medicine — and giving a hoot,” he says. “When you do those kinds of things, nothing can replace your job. You can’t beat it.”
Want to visit?
Ava Drug (112 W. Washington Ave., Ava) is open 8 a.m. to 6:3o p.m., Monday – Friday. On Saturday, it’s open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information, call 417-683-4127.
“’50s flavor at retro prices,” Nina Rao, Springfield News-Leader, April 30, 2005
“Nickel sales just the ticket for a soda fountain’s revival,” A.G. Sulzberger, The New York Times, Sept. 20, 2011