In the early Baby Boom years, the larger Berkshire communities had at least one drug store in the downtown on or near the Main Street. In 1950 Pittsfield had 10 pharmacies and eight of them were in the shopping district on North and South Streets or a block away. Only two were in neighborhoods on the southside and Morningside.
By the mid 1960s Pittsfield had 14 drug stores with seven still located in the downtown. I recall most of these and the medicinal smells upon entering several. But my interest was primarily in the few shops that had soda fountains.
One in particular I frequented after Boys Club events was the Professional Drug Store at 317 North St. The store had the tastiest frosts, lime rickeys, hot fudge sundaes, sandwiches and salads. The only thing I didn’t try was something called an egg cream as I figured it was made with raw eggs.
The fountain itself was not only the draw to this drug store, but also the owner, Simon “Si” Benson. He was a friendly and kind person to youngsters and always welcomed us to his store. His oldest daughter, Pittsfield resident Phyllis Sandrew, described her dad as the “gentle” gentleman druggist. Both he and his wife, Lee, were active members of the Pittsfield community.
Lee was from Pittsfield and met Si in 1932 on a blind date. They married the next year and moved to Allentown, Penn., where Si worked. Homesick for Pittsfield in 1934, Lee encouraged her husband to move back to her hometown. He became a partner in a new drugstore, Professional Drug Store, located at 697 North St. in the former Robinson Variety store.
The state required that a drug store be operated by a registered pharmacist and since Si was not one, he partnered with pharmacist Joseph Cahalen. Si was in charge of the store’s sundries and health related products.
In 1935 the new enterprise moved to 317 North St., acquiring the North Union Drug Store at that location. This pharmacy and its predecessor, the Union Drug Company, had been a Pittsfield business since the 1890s. Professional Drug remodeled the store to include the soda fountain with its menu of the sundaes, drinks, sandwiches and salads; nothing requiring cooking or baking. The fountain’s popularity resulted in another remodeling a few years later to add five mahogany booths to seat another 20 fountain customers.
In 1941 Si attended and graduated from the Western Massachusetts School of Pharmacy in Chicopee. When Si was trained, pharmacists had to learn how to mix chemicals to make the pills and capsules that were prescribed. Phyllis remembered some incredibly large capsules in the store and her dad explained that they were for cows and horses. Professional Drug Store filled veterinarian prescriptions as well as those for humans.
Over the years the store did well and Si had four different pharmacist partners with whom he had great work relationships. One more remodeling in the late 1950s resulted in replacing the booths with self-service racks for sundries and cosmetics, air conditioning and a larger pharmacy workspace. It was important to keep up with the times and customer’s needs. The pharmacy was one of the first locally to add the delivery of prescriptions. Si, himself, usually did the deliveries after work every day.
Si Benson had a great career and operated a highly respected business. He and Lee had raised three daughters and in 1977 at the age 72, he decided it was time to retire from the Professional Drug Store after 40-plus years. Pittsfield’s downtown business was beginning to decline. There were more pharmacies in neighborhoods and only a few remained downtown. National chains had also moved into the city, including CVS and Brooks, that gave strong competition to the smaller independent shops.
Si and his partner at the time, Mario Filippini, had decided to close the Professional Drug Store when they retired. They sold the store’s stock to Silvernail’s Pharmacy in Dalton and all the pharmacy records to CVS in Pittsfield. Si and Lee retired to Florida, but visited the Berkshires in summers. Simon “Si” Benson passed away in 1992 at the age of 87. Lee moved back to the Berkshires in 1998 and lived a very active life up to the age of 102, passing away in 2011. The couple had been married 59 years.
In conversing with his daughter, Phyllis, I learned that the three Benson girls had helped out at the Professional Drug Store during holidays. They worked at the soda fountain and had to learn how to make drinks like the egg cream. It was an eye opener to me when I later learned this New York City concoction had no eggs or cream in it. It is a combination of milk, chocolate or vanilla syrup and carbonated water.
I loved all the other offerings at the Professional Drug Store fountain and only wished I had tried the egg cream as a kid.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of “Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield.” If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you’d like to share or read about, please write Jim at [email protected]