Kids ran this show, and it ran just fine

If you walked into a neighborhood grocery/deli and found that the managers on duty are so young, they can barely see over the counter, yet they use professional meat slicing machines, whip up custom frappes and drinks using a soda fountain, cook hamburgers, add up grocery orders manually and actually issue the correct change* — you’d probably find yourself pretty impressed. But you’d probably still call the police.

Bob Carpenter (Jr)

Bob Carpenter (Jr), manager on duty

Yet this was daily life in 1950s Burlington, at Bob Carpenter’s store, dubbed Village Grocery. His children ran the place for a few hours every afternoon after school, while he took his daily break at the family’s Dearborn Road home, behind the fire station near the common. An adolescent using a professional meat slicer? All in a day’s work for the Carpenter kids. “Hey, none of us ever got cut,” says Dorothy (Carpenter) McLeod, who now lives in Woburn. The hardest part of running the store was scooping the rock-hard ice cream and stuffing it into cones, she says.

Of the six Carpenter children, Dorothy, Bob and Marian were the most frequently-seen faces behind the counter — assuming you were tall enough to see them.

The store operated from around 1947 to 1961. It was pushed aside when the big-box grocery chain called IGA (Independent Grocers Alliance) came to Cambridge St. on the property later occupied by Building 19 ½.

Carpenter’s store is now Amari Prom & Bridal, near AJ Rose Carpets & Flooring, hardly a hub for Burlington youth. But in the 1950s, it was the coolest place in the center of town. “It was kind of a hangout,” says Dorothy.

Amari Prom & Bridal, Burlington, MA

It was respected, even revered. How so? One Sunday, when the store was closed, a neighborhood child found the front door ajar. He went into the store and used his one nickel to call Bob Carpenter and tell him about the door. Mr. Carpenter thanked him and explained how to lock the door on the way out. “Imagine any of that happening nowadays?” asks Dorothy.

If you went to school in Burlington in the 1950s, you might have enjoyed a few questionable snow cancellation days. Bob Carpenter ran the town’s bus service, so he was among the officials with the power to cancel. With six children pushing for a day off, well, that’s a powerful lobby.

Bob Carpenter behind the counter at grand opening, Burlington MA

Bob Carpenter on his store’s first day. Photo credit: Dorothy McLeod

Carpenter's store, last day, Burlington MA

. . . and Bob Carpenter on his store’s last day, July 1961. Photo credit: Dorothy McLeod.

*Did she always issue correct change? “Well, either I screwed them or they screwed me,” says Dorothy. “But nobody ever came back to complain, so I must have been pretty close.”

The Dale/Rexall magic may never return

You’ve run out of your meds. Cursing yourself for procrastinating, you dash to CVS before they close. Oh, it’s worse — your refills are used up. You’ll need your doctor to authorize. Ah, but it’s even worse — it’s Sunday.

No problem. Your pharmacist and your doctor know each other, and you, on a first-name basis. Your pharmacist fills your script and will deal with the back-end logistics tomorrow. Off you go.

Impossible? No, it happens all the time, because we’re not in 2017. We’ve taken a time machine to 1970. And we’re not in CVS. We’re in Dale Pharmacy.

Dale Pharmacy lineup

Dale Pharmacy promotion, early 1990s. Back row: Dana DiMarzo, Dyann Carlson, Susan DiMarzo. Front row: Danita Hutchins, Dawn Hayes from Lottery Live, Dawn Boyd, Michael Cascio

It’s your father’s birthday. You’re hurrying home from work and don’t have even a half hour to browse for a gift or card. You need help. So you dash into CVS and look for Peg Randall, the store’s de facto gift and card specialist. She knows you and your family. She knows every item in the store and every card. You’re out of there in five minutes.

Again, we’re not really talking CVS. We’re talking Dale Pharmacy.

You walk into Shaw’s just as they’re opening in the morning. Smitty is there, as always, stacking the newspapers and preparing coffee. He’s a retiree, a volunteer, a friend of the store owner. He just likes to be part of the scene and lend a hand, so there he is, every single morning, the store greeter.

We’re not really talking Shaw’s. We’re talking Rexall, up the hill near the common, rubbing shoulders with myriad businesses including Captain Pizza and a liquor store in a mini-plaza that doesn’t exist in 2017 but held cultural great importance for 30-plus years.

Susan Morrison Metzler from Spruce Hill Road worked the soda/ice cream fountain at her father’s Rexall store while attending the brand new Burlington High School down the street. She sometimes slipped from school to have a quick coffee with him at the store. Teachers didn’t mind, as long as she didn’t come back empty-handed. “Let’s just say I knew how a few teachers liked their coffee.”

“Rexall was the pulse of Burlington. I knew every cop, firefighter and crazy character in town,” recalls Beverly Lowe Obremski, who worked the counter part-time from age 16 to 23. “Oh the arguments that went on there over a cup of coffee.”

Young people saw the neighborhood “drugstore,” a term no longer used, as a concentration of the world’s coolest stuff: Baseball cards, comic books, candy, gum, and, in the early days, a soda fountain that functioned like an adult bar but served up raspberry-lime rickeys and the like.

When the latest issues of popular comic books arrived, some young devotees were already in the store waiting for them to be unpacked. David Murgo, about 20 at the time, was one of them. “I was typically waiting there with Piglet and The Lenz. We figured out that delivery was Tuesdays and then later shifted to Wednesdays.” He never really gave up on comics. “I think I was the only one who stayed with the hobby, and probably spent a small fortune.”

Speaking of small fortunes, one Christmas eve night, when Dale Pharmacy had just closed at 6 p.m per tradition, a woman started frantically knocking on the front door. Pharmacist Michael Cascio let her in. She didn’t need medication. She needed a Christmas card. On the way out, she bought a scratch ticket on a whim — and hit for $250,000.

Fate!

But sometimes fate frowned. The place was robbed many times during the 80s and 90s, for the valuable pills. People smashed through the cinderblocks of the rear wall, penetrated the roof, and at least once, came right through the front door while the place was open. Cascio says he had a gun pushed against his head at the pharmacy counter, while another gunman held his nephew, working the front register, at gunpoint also. “For the grace of God nobody got shot. But the people who worked with me all showed up the next day. There wasn’t any moaning and groaning. They were there for me. We just soldiered on.”

When Dale ran out of something, including meds, it would borrow from Rexall, and vice versa. When Lahey came along, it sapped business away, right? Wrong. “Lahey increased our business,” says Cascio. “People didn’t want to go to that pharmacy. They took their prescriptions to us. I made friends with Lahey. We’d call each other all the time. We had a wonderful working relationship. We knew all the doctors in time.”

Back then, your pharmacist was your doctor’s alter-ego. Both knew your intimate, behind-the-scenes issues. “Seeing people got through their miseries and joys. The lives, deaths, sicknesses,” as Cascio puts it.

Rexall Burlington MA, with Charles Dearborn's house in the background.

Rexall plaza with Charles Dearborn’s house in the background. That house is now a Bank of America location, and the Rexall plaza is gone.

Dale Pharmacy 1957

Dale Pharmacy in 1957. It’s now Raja & Rana’s Indian Market. Photo Credit: Dale Cascio

Dale Pharmacy counter, Burlington MA

Dale Pharmacy counter

Not every day was small-town bliss at Rexall. One day a disgruntled customer from the adjacent liquor store threw a rock at the liquor store — but missed. The rock sailed wide to the right, crashed through the front window of Rexall and shattered the globe of the gumball machine.

At least it wasn’t the sacrosanct soda fountain. The fountain, for children, was more than the sum of its parts. Dale (DiMarzo) Cascio, the namesake of Dale Pharmacy, says that when the store finally removed the fountain, a little boy walked in with his mother, looked around in bewilderment and said, “Look mommy — the drugstore is gone!”

Alas, the drugstores are indeed gone. Both of them.

“It sounds like I’m waxing eloquent, but it truly was Camelot, and God smiled on us for the run we had,” says Mike Cascio. “It will never leave me as long as I’m alive. The fact that I had my kids working for me — they tell me to this day it shaped their lives, and they’re both very successful now. Having them with me four or five years, it was so wonderful.”