Streetwise: Take Two Aspirin All Across San Francisco

by Frank Dunnigan

Before the turn of the millennium, drug stores dotted commercial streets across San Francisco, both downtown and in individual neighborhoods. Then, larger chain pharmacies began to open additional, larger stores, often forcing out smaller “mom-and-pop” businesses. Here’s a look back at some of the drug store outlets across many San Francisco neighborhoods.

 

Powell & Market Streets, 1940s.Cable car turnaround at Powell and Market Streets, 1940s. (wnp25.0452; courtesy of a Private Collector)

The Owl Drug Company, once a large retail chain, was the long-time occupant of the Flood Building’s ground floor space at 870 Market Street, shown here in the 1940s. In 1952, F.W. Woolworth – then a major retail “five-and-dime” chain across the United States and other countries – took over the ground floor and basement from its location on the opposite side of Market Street. The Flood Building was Woolworth’s largest location, selling everything from cosmetics to candy, sewing notions to pet supplies, while the popular Chop-o-Matic was being demonstrated on the middle aisle. Woolworth remained there until the firm closed all of its stores in 1997, unable to compete with retailers such as Target, Walmart, and others. Various businesses have occupied the space over the last quarter-century-plus, but it has also experienced some vacant periods. Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s nostalgic 1997 article on Woolworth’s demise.

 

Market near 7th Street, June 18, 1968.View southeast across Market from 7th Street, June 18, 1968. (wnp25.6153; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Merrill’s Drugs was an early discount chain, with the motto “Serve Yourself & Save” on the sign of this Seventh and Market Street location in 1968. The store had occupied this space since the 1940s, along with a presence in numerous other Bay Area locations, but this one was the last to close in 2004 as other chains dominated the business model.

 

Montgomery between Bush and Sutter, April 1949.Montgomery Street between Bush and Sutter, April 1949. (wnp100.00282; Morton-Waters Co., SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)

Located at 141 Montgomery between Sutter and Bush Streets, Ladd’s Drugs served the needs of the Financial District in this 1949 image. Today the business is long gone and the space on that block is occupied by a 29-story office tower known as 101 Montgomery, constructed in 1984 when it was known as the Schwab Building. The high-rise currently houses multiple business tenants on the upper floors and a variety of ground-floor retail shops.

 

3rd & Newcomb Streets, circa 1910.3rd and Newcomb Streets, circa 1910. (wnp27.7374; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Just four years after the 1906 earthquake and fire devastated other parts of San Francisco, Todd’s Drugs was serving the quiet, almost-rural Bayview District from this corner location on Third Street near Newcomb Avenue, shown here in 1910. Todd’s vanished from the scene long ago, while the building remains largely unaltered over the last century, and is now home to a discount liquor store.

 

Market & Haight Streets, October 31, 1956.View west across Market and up Haight Street, October 31, 1956. (wnp14.4525; courtesy of a Private Collector)

The Hub Pharmacy was a decades-long fixture at Market and Haight Streets. Shown here in 1956, prior to the construction of the Central Freeway near the domed First Baptist Church at background center, Hub Pharmacy was San Francisco’s designated “open-all-night” pharmacy for several decades. The low-rise building, known as 1700 Market Street, housed a frame shop for many years after the pharmacy closed, but it was demolished circa 2018-19 and a new eight-story apartment building was erected on the site, now known as 1 Haight Street. Read more about the Hub neighborhood, courtesy of The Green Arcade bookstore.

 

1st Street near Mission Street, August 4, 1977.1st Street near Mission Street, August 4, 1977. (wnp25.6895; photo by William J. Madden / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The corner of First and Mission Streets, adjacent to the 1939-built Transbay Terminal, was the long-time home of Terminal Drugs (shown here in 1977) whose name inspired wry comments from columnist Herb Caen on a regular basis. The site, located at 100 First Street, was cleared in the late 1980s and since 1988 has been home to a 27-story high-rise office building, variously known as 100 First Plaza and Delta Dental Tower. The city’s tallest building, the 61-story Salesforce Tower, has occupied the old Transbay Terminal site at the lower right of this photo since its 2018 completion.

 

York Theatre, circa 1975.View southeast across intersection of York & 24th Streets to exterior of York Theatre, circa 1975. (wnp5.51129; Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)

The small Bell Pharmacy at 2799 24th Street in the Mission, shown here in 1975, operated in the shadow of the York Theatre. The movie house transitioned to the Brava Theater Center at the turn of the millennium and the corner drug store is long gone.

 

18th & Castro Streets, December 27, 1969.View west across the intersection of 18th and Castro Streets, December 27, 1969. (wnp14.3898; photo by John Harder / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The corner of 18th and Castro Streets was the long-time home to two pharmacies. At the time of this photo in December 1969, the business at 500 Castro on the left side of the image was known as Anderson Pharmacy. In earlier days, Anderson’s was known as Wulzen’s Rexall Pharmacy and also Ramsay Rexall. That site later became the Elephant Walk bar in 1974, which police broke into during the infamous White Night Riot in 1979. It then became Harvey’s (named after Harvey Milk) in 1996, before closing abruptly in January 2023. It is now being remodeled and combined with the space next store, set to open as a new bar, restaurant, and nightclub. The corner at right in the photo is Star Pharmacy, which in 1981 was the first place in the city to post a public notice identifying the symptoms of the disease that would later be named AIDS. Star was acquired by and re-branded as Walgreen’s in 1985, which is remains today.

 

Cortland Avenue & Wool Street, 1951.Cortland Avenue and Wool Street, 1951. (wnp58.187; SF Assessors Office Negatives / WNP Collection)

Many San Francisco neighborhoods once had small local pharmacies, including Arrow Pharmacy on Cortland Avenue in 1951. In recent times, this location was home to a discount liquor store for several years and has recently been remodeled into a Cantonese BBQ restaurant. Read Steve Rubenstein’s 1996 article about the closing of Arrow Pharmacy.

 

Fillmore and Clay Streets, circa 1938.View northerly on Fillmore from Clay Street, circa 1938. (wnp14.2263; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Another example of a small, independent neighborhood drug store is Jorgensen’s Pharmacy at Fillmore and Clay Streets in Pacific Heights, shown here in 1938. There have been several occupants in that space over the years, and since 1995, a boutique has been operating on the ground floor of the building.