Catching up with John Woodard of Chapel Hill landmark Sutton's Drug Store | Arts

Catching up with John Woodard of Chapel Hill landmark Sutton's Drug Store

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Sutton's Drug Store first opened its doors on Franklin Street in 1923. - PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
  • Sutton's Drug Store first opened its doors on Franklin Street in 1923.
Hollie knows that I need cream for my coffee and that I don’t need syrup for my pancakes.

“We haven’t seen you in a while,” she says. It’s been about a month. It seems I’m now a regular at Sutton’s food counter, and that I was missed.

After the morning rush, owner John Woodard is also drinking coffee at the food counter. He looks great. Well rested. “That’s what people have been telling me,” he says.

The sign above the front door still reads Sutton’s Drug Store, but it’s now a drug store in name only. Woodard was the pharmacist at Sutton’s. But, last June, Woodard sold the pharmacy part of the business to CVS, which opened a few doors up the street on East Franklin in Chapel Hill.

John Woodard at the former pharmacy counter. The shelves seem to contain newly stocked pill bottles. “They’re empty,” says Woodard. “A display.” - PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
  • John Woodard at the former pharmacy counter. The shelves seem to contain newly stocked pill bottles. “They’re empty,” says Woodard. “A display.”
Even without the pharmacy, Sutton’s is still Sutton’s. The food counter seems busy. Various odds and ends are sold on the store’s open shelves: Candy, snacks, newspapers, cigarettes and an impressive array of bottled sodas. Stacked next to the front register are free copies of a 2015 wall calendar with illustrations by Norman Rockwell.

INDY: How has your life changed since you closed the pharmacy?

JOHN WOODARD
: The wonderful thing about it is that I don’t have the stress and the irritation of fighting with the insurance companies. It’s so nice not having to worry about that. Being able to stay afloat as a small independent—it’s just hard to do. It all comes down to profit. When you can’t make enough profit off the prescription volume, you need to cut and make some changes. I still come in every day just as if we were still open as a full-fledged drug store. This is my home away from home. This is where all my friends come.

Sutton’s first opened its doors in 1923. What was the place like in 1977 when you took over?

At that time, the store was full of all kinds of merchandise just like all the other stores up and down the block. We had lots of over-the-counter medications as well as toiletries. Even cleaning supplies. Most drug stores didn’t have food counters at the time. There were several stores that had a soda fountain where they served drinks and ice cream, but not much in the way of food.

Food counter at Sutton’s, 1984 - COURTESY OF JOHN WOODARD
  • courtesy of John Woodard
  • Food counter at Sutton’s, 1984
I understand there used to be a cosmetics counter, and toys, too.

There was a toy store down in the basement. Mrs. Sutton had an incredible cosmetics counter, which I inherited when I bought the store. 

You worked the pharmacy counter. Did you ever work behind the food counter or the soda fountain?

Oh gosh, yes. The first four or five years the prescription part of the store was struggling with all the competition up and down the block. There was plenty of time for me to learn what it was like to be an employee at the soda fountain. I loved to make the milk shakes. It got to be where I could make them pretty fast. I got to meet so many people by simply pouring coffee. I was taking food orders when it got busy as well as ringing up sales at the cash register.

The photos of Sutton’s customers on the walls, the Carolina basketball jerseys hanging from the walls and the ceiling—they’re a dominant feature of Sutton’s. How did the photo taking get started?

The wall of photos at Sutton's. - PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
  • The wall of photos at Sutton's.
It was at that time in the early 1980s when the buying habits of the public started changing whenever the big box stores started coming. Don Pinney [now the store manager] and I went over to Durham and bought four booths that someone was trying to get rid of. We had them set up to see what we could do to increase the sales at the food counter. But the pegboard walls looked so bare. [Longtime Sutton’s cook] Willie Mae Houk and I were thinking: what in the world can we put on these walls to make them not look so bad? And she said: don’t you have pictures you took of some of the ball players when they’d come in to eat? I went upstairs and found 11 8x10s I had taken. And the next thing you know, we were getting people requesting: can we get our picture up there on that wall, too? The number of photos just mushroomed. I still have to have a camera here because you never know who is going to want to have their picture taken.

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PHOTO BY FRED WASSER
  • photo by Fred Wasser
Sutton’s Drug Store has expanded beyond Franklin Street. Since August, in partnership with the sports bar Pantana Bob’s, Sutton’s has been operating a food truck.

The truck is parked at the 300 block of West Rosemary Street, Chapel Hill, next to Pantana Bob’s. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Breakfast hours resume in the spring.

“The tater tots are the biggest thing,” says Lynn Brammer, who works the food truck. “Between midnight and three I get really busy. A lot of students are regulars. If you can believe it, I have a following!”

In general, the menu dovetails with Sutton’s on Franklin. It includes burgers, hotdogs, French fries, chicken tenders and barbecue.

“Cheap price, good food,” says Corey Davis, Lynn’s colleague at the truck, about what they offer.

Fred Wasser is a radio and print journalist based in Chapel Hill. Contact him via Breathing Room Radio.


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