Closed for lunch


Wise's Drug Store lunch counter employee Debbie Robbins hugs a customer during the pharmacy's final lunch service Friday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 10:54 p.m.

Customers old and new alike have come out of the woodwork to grab one last milkshake or daily lunch special since news came out two weeks ago that Wise's Drug Store is closing its Fountain lunch counter after more than 70 years.

Regulars came more regularly. Long-ago customers returned for the first time in decades. And curious newcomers came for the first time. Families of three or more generations gathered around tables.

They came to reminisce, to pay their final respects to one of the last vestiges of old Gainesville or to see a throwback to mid-20th century lunch counters.

All came for the last time Friday.

Buddy Wise, who turns 70 next month, and the full-time pharmacy staff and bookkeepers are moving to Wise's Pharmacy at 708 SW 4th Ave. at the end of February, but the lunch counter closed for good on Friday.

Wise said he and brother, Larry, wanted to cut back their hours and can split duties in the other location. He also said business has slowed, largely because of the prevalence of prescription drug plans that require mail-order pharmacy service.

The news started a daily lunch rush with waits as long as 45 minutes. Wise's had to hire a few extra helpers and moved a pharmacy clerk to hostess for crowd control.

"That's how it is: You don't know what you've got until it's gone," said Zach Seymour, 28, who came for the first time with four co-workers.

Lynn Goolsby came for the first time Friday after about 25 years in Gainesville.

"I used to eat at lunch counters a lot growing up as a child. It's a shame they've all closed," she said.

During lunch, the 15 counter stools and 27 table chairs were full while a crowd waited throughout the aisles.

Wise said he was surprised by the crowds of the last two weeks.

"It's good to see the people. They make me really hate to close it, but I've got to do it," Wise said. "It brings up old memories. There's just been an awful lot of people who worked in this area, people who shopped in this area coming back just to remember something of what it was like."

Bob Shirley, 78, of the Micanopy area said he came for lunch every day from 1962 to 1972 when he worked at the nearby BellSouth building and then just whenever he was in town.

"It's an icon here that should never leave, but I guess Buddy's getting old," he said, his comment directed at Wise.

Wyena Hanneld, 81, of Gainesville came with her son and his wife, granddaughter and great-grandson.

She said she and two co-workers who died last summer came there every day for lunch when she worked at the nearby Western Union from 1948 to 1972, "because we only had a half hour lunch. We were the threesome."

She recalled former counter manager Marie Jones spreading condiments on sandwiches with her flattened spoon.

Not everyone was enamored by the crowds.

Paul Guidry, 70, who lives outside Gainesville, was also a regular while working at BellSouth from 1964 to 1994 and has continued to visit at least once a week to see old friends.

"All these people in here now ain't showed up in 20 years. They're disrupting the whole place," he said.

Jo Ann Parham, 79, came for lunch with her "lunch bunch" last Monday and reminisced about her first date there in September 1948 with her late husband, Robert Parham, who would be the first pastor of Northwest Baptist Church.

"We sat on the bar stool and went to the Florida Theatre after," she said by phone Friday. "It's just kind of sad to think of another historic thing that has brought some pleasure to so many people - to have it close. Of course, downtown is nothing like I remember it as a young person, either. Wise's is probably one of the last things left."

Not all the older regulars are older. Wise said they "adopted" Kyle Eller, a precocious 8-year-old who has come in weekly with his grandfather, eye doctor John Beckum, and befriended all the workers and other regulars.

"It's the end of an era," Beckum said. "It's kind of a meeting place for old Gainesville."

Employees expressed mixed emotions.

Cashier Yvonne Densen said she was retiring after 32 years at the business.

"It's going to be sad. Very sad," she said. "They're nice people to work for. Everyone seemed like family to me."

Debbie Robbins worked at Wise's Fountain off and on for a total of 25 years.

"When you've done something as long as I have, it's really sad to have to leave it," she said while making sandwiches. "They're good people to work for and fantastic customers."

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