Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
On a Tuesday afternoon when the Olmos Pharmacy normally would have two or three tables of late lunch eaters or early drinkers, owner Rod Campbell was alone, taking inventory. A few days earlier, he had announced on Facebook that the restaurant and live music venue would close permanently, effective immediately. His post has been shared 811 times and elicited 1,800 comments and sad emojis.
“I decided not to have a closing party,” he said, “but maybe I should have.”
Such a gathering might have fomented fond sentiments into an offer to take over the lease of the San Antonio icon, which opened in 1938 as the Gilmore Pharmacy and lunch counter. It has existed in the same Streamline Moderne building – a landmark on the corner of Hildebrand and McCullough avenues – throughout its well-loved life. Its counter, with a green malted milk maker and soda pulls, recalls family traditions of sharing milkshakes, sundaes, and malts from generation to generation.
“We used to take our kids for milkshakes, and now they take theirs,” longtime Olmos Park resident Bob Shearer said.
Campbell said he had made attempts to sell the business, and potential investors, partners or purchasers had contacted him. He encouraged interested parties to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, anyone swayed by emotion and memories might have second thoughts about intervening in the closing of the place, which has not operated as a pharmacy for 10 years. Campbell enumerated one expense after another – food, staff, operating costs, and problems requiring expensive fixes.
“Everyone knows the restaurant business is hard,” Campbell said, sitting on the banquette at a table with his laptop and an uneaten corndog. “It’s challenging, with issues of the facility itself, operating costs, and staff [reliability]. Some nights will be great, and you think you have the right formula, and the next week …” He shrugged.
Twice he had to shut down the place for a week when sewer pipes collapsed and City water problems required digging. Then parking became an issue when the neighboring strip center, which owns all the parking spaces, prohibited Olmos Pharmacy parking, even though the business had previously paid for parking spaces.
Also, Campbell pointed out, his blue eyes twinkling, the old pharmacy was never intended as a music venue with the ability to support the power load demanded by electric guitars, amplifiers, and stage lights, nor was its plumbing able to handle heavy use. The tiny kitchen was built to serve as a soda counter, not to produce a full menu of offerings.
“It’s a weird ‘Catch-22,’” he said. “You need to fill the place with people, but then there’s not enough room to take care of them.”
It was Campbell himself and his Celtic quartet RTFM that first brought music to the pharmacy after Monte Vista residents Dru Van Steenberg and Tim Cone purchased the business in 2007 from George Stone. Stone had owned the pharmacy since 1974 and owns the building to this day. Van Steenberg and Cone renamed it The Bharmacy, which raised some old timers’ eyebrows especially when the building’s familiar neon sign was retooled so that the “P” became a “B.” But the name cleverly reflected its new life as a venue for live music served up with beer and wine.
Campbell’s wife noticed the “new” bar in Olmos Park and thought it might be perfect for playing music after the Radius Club, where RTFM played on Thursday nights, shut its doors. Thus began Celtic music on Thursdays, a popular jazz jam on Mondays with Small World, Tuesday open-mic nights, and regular evenings with the SA Blue Cats, Joe “King” Carrasco, and various other rockers and singer songwriters.
“It was always fun to see who would show up,” Campbell said.
Once established, a young entrepreneur named Carlos Padilla, bought The Bharmacy. In 2013, Campbell became part owner; in August 2016, he became the sole owner. Campbell later added a full bar along with the pharmacy’s trademark breakfasts, hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and soda fountain fare, open from morning through night.
Despite new circuit breakers, lighting, and decor Campbell put in, he said the challenges never stop.
A member of the SA Blue Cats, George Briscoe, declared on Facebook that the Pharmacy would reopen if he won the Texas Lottery. Barring that, Campbell is still serving shakes to friends while supplies last. Stone told Campbell he is looking for a “larger entity” to occupy the space.
Perhaps, Campbell said, a Starbucks.